Toying with the manipulators

November 12, 2023

While major political parties will soon get busy with canvassing, others may be busy in cobbling up a battalion of dependable dislodgers

Toying with the manipulators


he year was 2014. The season was summer; the city London; the location Edgware Road. All my companions were Pakistanis; not the ordinary sort that have made it to the global capital by employing factual or fictional sob stories to seek asylum or managed to obtain a highly skilled professional visa leading to a right to permanent residence. My mates on that particular early afternoon were members of the Pakistani parliament who had secured their southern Punjab constituencies on Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) tickets only thirteen months ago. Winning had never been a problem for them. Members of their family had been in the national or provincial assemblies for decades. But they were really worried – about their political future and that of the PML-N government.

“Is Pakistan headed for early elections,” one of them asked me. “Are you joking or trying to wind me up,” was my swift response. Pakistan had experienced its first ‘peaceful’ electoral transition after the Pakistan Peoples Party completed its mandated five-year term in the first half of 2013. The PML-N had bagged 166 seats. Losing 76 constituencies, the PPP had had to be content with 42 seats. Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which had boycotted the 2008 elections, had mustered 35 seats despite overt and covert support from some potent characters in the all-powerful establishment and the country’s premier intelligence agency. Nawaz Sharif had created political history by becoming prime minister for the third time. The PML-N had formed governments at the Centre and in the Punjab. In Balochistan, the party had entered into a political alliance with Dr Malik’s National Party and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.

Only mad men would be thinking of fresh elections in the summer of 2014 it seemed as there was no visible political challenge to the Sharif government.

“Something sinister is cooking, sir,” my parliamentarian pal said, letting blue mist shisha smoke out of his nostrils. I asked him if he could elaborate on the ‘sinister’ bit. What he said next has since fossilised in my memory. “A few ‘agency wallahs’ had visited us recently and asked us to get ready for the next elections. They suggested that we run as independents.” He said they had been advised not to speak to the party leadership about the visit of these ‘friends.’ “They said we would be advised regarding who to join after we had won our seats. But we were clearly told not to contest on a PML-N ticket.”

Next few weeks unlocked the mystery. Leading opponents of Nawaz Sharif gathered in the British capital to fine tune the details of yet another ‘London plan.’ PTI’s Imran Khan and PML-Q’s Chaudhrys of Gujrat held meetings with the Pakistan Awami Tehreek’s Allama Tahir-ul Qadri who had arrived from Canada. The remaining characters had flown in from Pakistan. These meetings were held at the Quadrangle off Edgware Road, East London, and Mayfair – one of London’s most expensive residential and commercial districts. Important men belonging to the Inter Services Intelligence were said to have taken part in these meetings. The idea was to bring the Sharif government down through public unrest and a permanent dharna in Islamabad. What happened next would be another bleak chapter in Pakistan’s chequered political history.

Toying with the manipulators

Fast forward to 2023: Pakistan is once again gearing up for elections. Political fortunes of some of the leading Pakistani politicians have undergone phenomenal twists over the last couple of years. The project to introduce a third factor or force in the Pakistani politics is haunting its sponsors. The man from the Punjab they managed to oust through forced retirement, a coup d’état, a lousy exile and a managed expatriation is not only back but is also being touted as a potential next prime minister. The man from Sindh they have worked with and against has vowed to plant his son on the prime ministerial throne before he himself fades into political oblivion.

While the three nemeses try to outdo one another through Machiavellian craft, political chess is playing out in Karachi, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southern Punjab. Political parties lacking the muscle or intent to play at the national level are being scouted to support provincial heavyweights. The elite grab is conspicuous. If one is not a tribal malik, a regional sardar or a feudal lord, then one has to be either loaded with money to attract the powers that be or a direct nominee of the establishment to make it to parliament.

Since Pakistan has been reduced to four disjointed political units and the ability of major political parties to carry all the provinces has been effectively curtailed through years of ‘external’ manipulation or internal incapacity, the scope of political engineering has expanded. While the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI may be getting ready to finalise candidate lists, smaller parties have little option but to ‘seek’ guidance from the men in the shadows. It seems quite obvious now that no single party will be able to form a government on its own. Coalitions will have to be negotiated to form working governments. Signs of that eventuality are already discernible. If democracy is primarily a game of numbers, then the four electoral units – Balochistan, Islamabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh – cannot match Punjab’s 141 National Assembly seats.

If the past thirty years are any guide to Pakistan’s political history, no single party will be allowed to sweep the Punjab. The political parties and politicians have, by and large, failed to present a cohesive national outlook. Their politics is defined largely by Winston Churchill’s remark that “a politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year; and to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Certain houses in Islamabad and the four provincial capitals are currently buzzing with activity. However, it seems that the politicians can only offer accommodation or seat adjustments. They have difficulty dislodging a government unless supported by the power of the establishment. Politicians in many rural constituencies can think of no more than joining the powerful and staying with them as long as they are in power. The electoral process may be too tricky to mess with but those who wield the prowess, control the manipulators.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Islamabad

Toying with the manipulators