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July 15, 2018

Game, set, match


July 15, 2018

Imran Khan has an open goalpost before him. All he has to do is net the ball. Securing the highest political office of the land, which has been a pot of gold for him, is now well within his grasp. Only a remarkably seedy player will miss such a lifetime opportunity.

Since July 2017, Imran Khan has been enjoying a streak of good luck as his arch rival Nawaz Sharif found himself sucked into an ever-worsening predicament – unceremonious exit from the office of the prime minister, ouster as party head, lifetime disqualification from holding public office, and now conviction for ill-gotten wealth.

To all appearances, it’s the end of the road for the nation’s only three-time prime minister. This is not to suggest that fate authored Nawaz Sharif’s travails with a view to putting Imran Khan in the driving seat, ushering in an imminent cakewalk victory. Success sagas usually have a sting in the tail. Even the most outstanding of careers may come a cropper.

But in a rat race, when the fortune of one player goes to pot, the prospects of others bound ahead. With the PPP in a shambles in the key Punjab province, the PTI seems only a whisker away from finishing first in the electoral race.

The timing of the accountability court’s judgment, which came less than three weeks before the nation goes to the polls, is exceedingly consequential. The conviction left PML-N workers and supporters, who were short on verve and vitality even before the sentence was handed down to their leader, crestfallen and in a fit of pique, and at the same time toned up PTI rank and file. The majority of the voters who were sitting on the fence could be inclined to vote for the PTI. Already, most of the electables have put in their lot with the PTI. This is not an attempt to insinuate that the timing of the verdict was chosen by design. Political factors seldom act on judicial decisions.

Shahbaz Sharif doesn’t seem capable – and, some would say, desirous – of taking his elder brother’s narrative forward. He may be a dab hand at deal-making – a la Asif Zardari – or at public administration but taking up the gauntlet of popular politics is not his cup of tea. Again, like Zardari and Imran, settling up with the powerful rather than taking them head on is the hallmark of junior Sharif’s politics. The carefully crafted press conference by him, on the heels of senior Sharif’s conviction, cast aside any hope of his assuming a defiant posture. Reciting a few electrifying verses from Habib Jalib or pirouetting at the stage may sweep the audience off their feet, but it doesn’t make you a revolutionary. In the PML-N, only Maryam Nawaz could take up the cudgels for her father’s narrative but she too has been sentenced to imprisonment.

The least said the soonest mended. With Shahbaz Sharif in the van, the PML-N is likely to reprise its old role – a role which catapulted its leadership to glory until it fell out with its mentors. In the short-run, reprising such a role would enable the party to transcend its state of being in a quandary over doing politics of confrontation or conciliation. In the long-run, the party may again make itself palatable to the powerful, albeit at the cost of shedding its mass appeal. Hence, if today, the PML-N is up the creek, tomorrow it may rise and shine again.

It’s the possibility of the PML-N returning to its roots that must be giving Imran Khan the jitters. The PML-N is adept at constituency politics, has an elaborate organisational setup, is widely seen to be good at service delivery and, to top it all, has the largest province as its power base. With such credentials, it can dent the PTI’s plans.

However, in the upcoming polls, the PTI’s victory is on the cards. It takes time for wounds to heal and fences to mend. The only question is the victory margin: will the party secure a qualified or a resounding success? Will it emerge as the single largest party, secure a simple majority, or win two-thirds majority? Should the PTI emerge as the single largest party sans a simple majority, it will have the option of either cobbling together a coalition or sitting on the opposition benches. Imran recently stated that he would go for the latter course. But he is so obsessed with occupying the PM office that he will leap at any opportunity to form government.

This gives rise to another question: who will be the PTI’s coalition partner(s)? Potentially, the PTI has three coalition partners: the PPP, the clergy alliance MMA, and independents. The presence of a large number of independents, including heavyweights like Chaudhry Nisar, is at once a cause for relief as well as concern for the PTI.

Once elected, the independents are likely to join the single largest party. In case a good number of them return to the National Assembly, the PTI can form its government without having to rely on other major parties or alliances. But the presence of too many independents in the assembly will rack up their bargaining power relative to that of the single largest party. In a potentially intriguing scenario, one of the independents may covet to become the king rather than the kingmaker, which may cause Imran’s long-standing dream to come to grief.

In characteristic fashion, Imran has ruled out forming a coalition with the PPP, mainly for the reason that its top leadership is ‘mired in massive corruption,’ which is the leitmotif of his politics. At any rate, angels and demons can’t work in tandem. That said, Imran is prone to flip flopping. On almost every important issue he takes a ‘principled’ position but on sober reflection he takes an about-turn. If, in his own words, he can go to any length to defeat the PML-N, what would prevent him from joining hands with the PPP if the post of the PM is at stake?

Let’s not forget that the two parties made common cause during the Senate elections earlier this year to block the PML-N’s nominee for the chairman. So, necessity may make saints and sinners rub shoulders. Again, the scenario of Imran and Zardari playing ball with each other will sweep the nation along. The spectacle of Zardari as president and Imran as premier, if it comes true, will be the icing on the cake. Coalition politics do make for strange bedfellows.

The PTI should have little problem in striking an alliance with the MMA. For one thing, both are parties of the Right and have congruent views about militancy. For another, both look down upon drawing the begging bowl and corruption and believe in ruthless accountability. Both agree on the definition of a ‘ghairatmand Musalman’. The PTI was in a coalition with the Jammat-e-Islami, one of the principal constituents of the MMA, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for five years.

The only possible roadblock to a PTI-MMA coalition is the Imran-Maulana Fazalur Rehman antagonism. But hopefully in the larger national interest, these two selfless leaders will be able to sink their differences, if needed. Interesting times are in store for the nation.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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