Political posturing and power projections

August 23, 2020

Even though things may seem quiet at the surface, Maryam Nawaz’s trademark defiance outside the Lahore NAB office shows that opposition politics is at its craftiest and most interesting right now

Photo by Rahat Dar

Two key developments last week have stirred up the otherwise stagnant waters of politics in Pakistan. One was the completion of two years of the so-called Naya Pakistan project of the Imran Khan government; the other was Maryam Nawaz presenting herself at the National Accountability Bureau office in Lahore resulting in headline-friendly mayhem and the firebrand Pakistan Muslim League-N politico breaking her self-imposed silence after nearly a year.

The two events have a bearing on each other and indicate the shape of things to come away from the humdrum of routine politics that some would argue in Pakistan have seemingly amounted to a lazy absence of productive politics that is the hallmark of a plural parliamentary polity.

What do the developments portend?

First, let’s take the government. Self-adulatory rhetoric marking the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf celebrations of two years in power notwithstanding, it is no small milestone. Over the past 30 years, of the eight elected governments, only three have completed their 5-year terms; most others have barely completed half of their constitutional terms.

The Khan government seemed the weakest to begin with (requiring political turncoats and independents to prop up a simple majority) and still is arguably the worst performing government of the last 50 years. But it has survived albeit while delivering a negative growth for the first time in six decades, a record debt-pile, a debilitating inflation and foreign policy setbacks galore.

The reason why there was plenty of exaggerated rhetoric on achievements of two years, real or imagined, but no fireworks or a song-and-a-dance in the streets by the government’s supporters, is the bitter reality of a country barely managing a day-to-day governance routine. The lofty rhetoric of a Naya Pakistan ushering in a shiny new country is not even funny any longer.

The party’s survival to sing its own praises of two years in power are squarely down to the near-blind support of the Establishment – a support openly boasted about by the ruling ranks. A parliamentary-approved extension to the otherwise fixed bureaucratic tenure of the army chief last year is still widely seen as the de facto extension of survival to the Khan dispensation.

This then brings us to the opposition. Politically narrow-alleyed into a survival mode of its own through a convoluted witch-hunt in the name of accountability, the top and second tier leaderships of most mainstream opposition parties have been herded into a regular routine of responding to references, frequenting NAB offices and attending court hearings. This has included such top-ranking politicians as Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto, Maryam Nawaz, Hamza Shahbaz, Yousaf Raza Gilani, Khurshid Shah, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Saad Rafique, Khawaja Asif and Ahsan Iqbal.

This thinly disguised arm-twisting has ensured little time for active opposition politics by the mainstream parties with their top-ranking politicos neutralised to varying degrees.

Which is why Maryam slipping back into her trademark spirited defiance outside NAB doors, even if for a brief while, created a political shockwave of sorts, reanimating political discourse. Coming on the heels of an extended deafening silence from street politics by her or even her otherwise punchy tweets, this suddenly restores a world of political possibilities, even if in the domain of conjecture and analysis. Maryam’s political peak-a-boo was a startling reminder that politics of opposition is not dead but is only at a functional pause for strategic reasons and continues to retain its full potency.

The context is key here. In terms of electoral politics and legislative power, the Pakistani political landscape mainly comprises three main ‘national’ parties – the PPP, the PML-N and the PTI – and at least one electorally viable ‘native’ party (other than the ‘national’ ones) at the provincial level. These include the MQM in Sindh, Asfandyar’s ANP and Fazl’s JUI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mengal’s BNP and Bizenjo’s NP in Balochistan and PML-Q of the Chaudhries in the Punjab.

The parties that have been co-opted by the PTI in ruling Pakistan currently include the MQM, the BNP and the PML-Q. That leaves the PPP, the PML-N, the NP and the JUI to share the burdens of opposition of which the PPP and the PML-N have to do the heavy-lifting. Currently Bilawal of the PPP and Fazl of the JUI are the only ones still audible, on behalf of their parties, on the political landscape, criticizing the government. The rest are functionally silent, especially the top leadership of the PML-N; Nawaz, Shahbaz and Maryam have spent most of this year being quiet and out of sight.

While the opposition has been found wanting in its duty, the government hasn’t been without criticism of it, thanks to its own blundering leaders and the not too infrequent spats between them. The cumulative effect of this and the opposition’s general quietude has been the growing impression that the PML-N – the sleeping giant of the Punjab that holds the key to the immediate to mid-term electoral political future of Pakistan – is a spent force unable to mobilise public opinion against the Establishment-supported government that the PPP is failing to threaten much.

This is why Maryam’s latest splash is more than the sum of its apparent parts. One quick morning of activism in Lahore has restored faith in the PML-N’s potency and allowed the party to re-test the popularity of the Nawaz-Maryam faction of the party among its voters and its own second-tier leadership who may be temporarily two-minded. It is this kind of calculated glimpse of message-oriented leadership that has so far prevented the party losing its legislators to the power corridors as the PPP has. The party knows who is in control – certainly not the Shahbaz faction that fancies a middle-ground ripe with low-hanging fruits.

Maryam’s brief abandonment of political hibernation also indicates a long-term political strategy even if it is not fully fleshed out. She has also successfully conveyed the message to the Establishment that while the battle with it is withheld under coercion, the King’s party of Khan does not enjoy electoral certainties in the Punjab – the main theatre of the next electoral battleground. This is classic political posturing – projecting power without actually employing it when a formal battle is not being played out.

Also, unlike the PPP the PML-N is not hobbled politically by being simultaneously in the opposition at the national level and in government at the provincial level. Bilawal Bhutto has to expend copious amounts of political energy to stay relevant defending the PPP government in Sindh and attacking the PTI but for Maryam to stay in the game all she has to do is show up in public or on Twitter a few brief moments a year and she retains her relevancy and PML-N’s political capital all in one fell swoop.

For now, Maryam is making Bilawal do the heavy lifting on oppositional politics without threatening her base in the Punjab. While he tires out a little and becomes a tad over-exposed politically as other opposition forces snooze, she is saving her energies for the coming electoral battle. This is clever politics of a new kind with future, not present, in mind.

Even if there’s not much oppositional politics going on right now in Pakistan, who says it’s not interesting, skilful and crafty?

The author is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at adrehmat@gmail.com

Political posturing and power projections