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September 23, 2018

On a rollercoaster


September 23, 2018

Two months after the elections and more than one month after the formal launch of Naya Pakistan, we seem to be hurtling back into the pre-election mode of malicious political wrangling. Those passions that should have ebbed with the advent of a new administration are being resurrected.

And there is little concern at any level about the damage that this polarised politics is doing to our society. Ordinary lives are touched by what may be described as a collective emotional disorder. One measure of how things may be falling apart is the tone and tenor of the talk shows on our news channels. Unfortunately, the media is still not able to conduct a sober and reasoned discussion that could lower the temperature. It is not breathing easy even under a professedly democratic dispensation.

So, what has happened this week to raise the alarm? A lot, really. But the most significant event took place on Wednesday when the Islamabad High Court suspended the sentences of the ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Mohammad Safdar till a decision on their appeals. After being released from Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, they were flown to Lahore late at night.

Though it was widely expected, given the holes that legal experts had detected in the judgment of the accountability court and the remarks made during the hearing by Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Miangul Hassan, the judgment had its dramatic impact. The very thought of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam stepping out into the political arena was tantalising.

That both of them were in jail in the final lap of the election campaign was seen to have influenced the results. Maryam’s absence was particularly felt. Both of them had returned to Pakistan from London on July 13 to be arrested, after an accountability court had sentenced them in the Avenfield properties case.

Incidentally, they were released on parole for five days to attend the burial of Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, who had died in London, and were shifted back to the jail only two days before they were released on bail. Because the judgment had come on the day when Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Jeddah, meeting the Saudi leadership, there were whispers about the possibility of a deal. The layman’s logic was based on a particular dimension of our political history.

In any case, the immediate reaction of PTI leaders indicated that there is no let-up in their bitterness. They did not accept the judgment in good spirit and asserted that Nawaz would finally return to jail. As for the PML-N, one its leaders, commenting on the rumours of a deal, said that Nawaz “will stick to his narrative”. That is how one expects the revival of the campaign atmosphere.

We can also be certain that when Nawaz finalises his strategy in a few days, the issue of rigging in the July elections will be its main plank. Simultaneously, the commission formed by the National Assembly would also sustain partisan passions.

Another reason why the political fervour is not dying down is that the government led by Imran Khan is somehow not being able to put its act together. This week, Umar Cheema documented in this newspaper the “PTI govt’s 16 flip-flops in 30 days”. From an economic point of view, columnist Khurram Husain was more explicit. He wrote: “In every contact this party has had with powerful interests, it has backed down rather than hold its ground”.

It is significant that such assessments aren’t restricted to domestic observers. On Friday, The Guardian published a report sent from Islamabad by its own correspondent Memphis Barker. The headline: “Climbdowns, cheese and crowdfunding: Imran Khan’s first month as PM”.

It is possible to go into details, but the gist of it is that the debate on how the PTI is aiming to live up to the promises it had made has deepened political polarisation. A lot of time is wasted in explaining and interpreting the moves that have been made. Since Imran Khan has a cult following, irrespective of how it would work in a fair electoral exercise, the PTI supporters tend to be more strident in the face of equally strong criticism – and this is reflected in casual social encounters.

A number of other major developments have taken place in a week in which Pakistan was routed by India in Wednesday’s Asia Cup match that was played in Dubai. On the same day, in addition to the IHC judgment and Imran Khan’s meetings with Saudi leadership, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa called on Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing to discuss regional security environment.

The importance of this encounter in Beijing cannot be over-emphasised, with specific reference to how our foreign policy is designed and executed in these treacherous times. We are now told that Saudi Arabia is set to become a third strategic partner in CPEC. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is likely to invest heavily in Pakistan.

Finally, cricket is not the only game we are playing with – or against – India. This was another rollercoaster ride this week. On Thursday, the big news that came as a pleasant surprise was that India agreed for a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. This meeting was proposed in a letter that Imran Khan had sent to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

Of course, the PTI projected this as the success of Imran Khan’s foreign policy initiatives. This would have been the first meeting of the foreign ministers of the two neighbouring nuclear states after December 2015. In his letter, our prime minister had also asserted that “the only way forward for our two countries lies in constructive engagement”.

Ah, but even one day is a long time in politics and diplomacy. On Friday, India called off this meeting which, in any case, would not be a dialogue. The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs cited Pakistan’s “unclean intentions”. He referred to the “killing of Indian security forces” allegedly by “Pakistani entities” and releasing stamps allegedly “glorifying terrorists”.

Not only this, the spokesperson said that behind its proposal for talks “the evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of …Prime Minister Imran Khan has been revealed” to the world.

What does this mean? Modi has an election next year and he is obviously playing politics. Sadly, this is also what we are doing in Pakistan, with implications that are not so certain.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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