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October 11, 2017

View from the Gallery: PM treading a tightrope amid rising challenges


October 11, 2017

ISLAMABAD: Three important issues at hand are putting the skills of Premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to test in and outside parliament these days. And compelling him to take a more cautious approach in running affairs of the government as he has to act a bridge between the ‘real establishment’ and the aggrieved elder Sharif family. And avoid roadblocks and bumps that could pave way for opposition PTI’s ever increasing demand for early elections. He also has to set aside conspiracies by those who have lately been complaining to elder Sharif about Premier Abbasi’s efficiency and speed in dealing with cabinet, security committee meetings and his attendance in the Parliament. This is efficiency by all counts, but in the political environment like ours, it sometimes earns negative marks especially when Abbasi filled in the shoes of elder Sharif for 45 days, but was asked to continue till the next elections. So all eyes and attention are on him as he occupies the hot seat.

That said, the alleged Intelligence Bureau (IB) memo linking 37 treasury MPs to banned, proscribed outfits has caused much uproar and unease in the treasury ranks. The ripple effects are continuing till date. And then the Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal-Rangers row of authority last week at the accountability court. Facing erosion of authority at the hands of his disciplined subordinates, Ahsan Iqbal tries to put up a brave face in public. But feels helpless till the Premier puts his foot down on this issue, and that too at a time when the advice of the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif calls for caution and moderation. That is causing a lot of speculation in the treasury ranks, ministers too, as they wonder whether the interior minister would be made to eat his words, or be given a graceful exit from the situation?

The whole situation makes the former Interior minister Ch Nisar smile as he is found showing extra courtesy to treasury backbenchers these days. And last but not the least, the change of members’ oath issue (under the election reforms bill). Law Minister Zahid Hamid is in a tight spot on this issue as three-member committee under Raja Zafarul Haq investigates.    On Monday evening at the Parliament House, after a meeting with the aggrieved legislators (leading lights of the 37 names in IB memo) the premier tells the National Assembly the IB memo as shown by a news channel, was fake. But doesn’t it require a judicial inquiry or JIT of sort as the opposition demands? Or the ruling party is too allergic of JITs after the Panama fallout, and Model Town report related saga? The investigation is, however, continuing into (IB memo) and its possible motives. It is however difficult these days to calm down the treasury benches, especially some backbenchers and ministers, whom ruling party insiders suspect as future rebels, spoilers. Look at the way Khusro Bakhtiar and Raza Haraj roam around with Tariq Bashir Cheema, the PML-Q man. Both these PML-N legislators, formerly in PML-Q, got nothing in the last cabinet expansion. Hence, some subtle, defiant overtures. Interestingly, some of the leading lights of this list of 37 MPs are being watched by eyes and ears of the government for their near future political plans. Rebel inclinations by some of them achieve two purposes of the anti-Sharif elements in the real establishment – it weakens the ruling party and Sharifs, and paves way for early elections too. But the real question for the moment is all these experienced electables, some of them having served Musharraf-Shaukat Aziz set up from 2002-7 are no political novices. They joined PML-N before 2013 elections as PML-Q got virtually eliminated. And they know the political ground realities in the Punjab till the ruling PML-N is intact. In this province, the political battleground for PML-N and PTI, only two tickets are in demand for elections 2018 – one to be decided by Imran Khan, the other by Sharifs.

Still, some self-acclaimed insiders of the power corridors would take pains in convincing media men day in and days out that a political storm is being gathered to pave way for early elections sometimes from March to May 2018. And PPP, independents, and then the PML-Q led by Chaudhrys of Gujarat (courtesy the garrison-politician Jat connection) would be revived to pave way for such a future National Assembly where no party would have a clear cut majority. That would act like a big check on both Imran khan and Sharifs’ political goals and power.

In the National assembly on Monday evening the able son-in-law of elder Sharif was all over the place. Clad in a rare two piece suit Capt (r)Safdar was beaming with confidence and went all around the treasury benches, instantly greeted by backbenchers and prodded by seniors for his bravado one night stay in NAB custody. His drive from the NAB court along with his wife (Maryam Nawaz) was splashed all over new headlines all day. So Safdar is finally back, after gaining lost confidence. Maryam Nawaz’s political rhetoric is, however, proving a two edge sword for the PML-N and its government.  Hawks now pursuing aggressive defense think it is time that Maryam should be pushed up the leadership ladder, especially after the NA-120 electoral test.  Some party seniors close to elder Sharif may still be hesitant about Maryam’s fast pace ascendency to the leadership, but they would come to terms with the new reality soon. Teamed up with her mother Begum Kulsoom, some think it could be a sort of toned down version of late Benazir Bhutto-Nusrat Bhutto team in the 80s. But the Bhutto ladies faced the worst of atrocities during that martial law regime. The situation at hand is much too comfortable for the Sharifs in these days when they rule federal and Punjab government, and democracy is there to stay. Senior Leaguers and ministers like Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal, even Saad Rafiq (the list is long) however are more comfortable in elder Sharif’s company. And would take time in adjusting to Maryam’s style. For example, Ahsan Iqbal has not been happy with Danyal Aziz’s ascendency as federal minister. Earlier, he was sceptical about Danyal’s inclusion in Maryam’s media team. But that media team did its duty and got prized postings as a result. Zubair Umar got Sindh governorship. Danyal Aziz made a federal minister, Talaal Chaudhry and Mariam Aurangzeb became ministers of state. Now this group forms a powerful voice in advocating Maryam as a political heir to Nawaz Sharif.

With all the happenings, move and counter moves, pragmatic and influential lot of ruling Leaguers now think the party and leadership have done enough of venting out of grievances and emotions since July 28 disqualification of the former premier.

Now it is time to mend fences, devise a strategy for a 2018 win for the PML-N with the garrison acting as a neutral umpire. So tempers should be cooled down. The elder Sharif loyalists, in the party as well as key cabinet slots, think there should be real-clear visible steps in the days to come that would amply demonstrate that the establishment is ready to play ball with them.

They want concrete assurances and no behind the scene deception at work.

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