Now, even if Nawaz returns and sets the campaign trail on fire, the pieces are in place to thwart a last-minute PML(N) wave.
And then there were two: Imran and the Sanjrani-type option. Shahbaz has fizzled, Zardari is embattled and Nawaz — well, what would you do if you were Nawaz?
Return Nawaz has promised to do, but his words aren’t very convincing. Because return to what? It was already apparent that he wasn’t interested in fighting a bruising election.
Win but hand the keys of PM House to someone else? No thank you, Nawaz had all but announced. And that was before what has come in recent weeks.
Now, even if Nawaz returns and sets the campaign trail on fire, the pieces are in place to thwart a last-minute PML(N) wave. South Punjab, independents, Lahore, fire-breathing mullahs, blunt pressure — so many ways to break the will and the vote bank of the N-League.
And if really needed, we’re at the stage that strategic ballot rigging or result tampering is back in the realm of the possible. Think the old MQM’s electoral Karachi on a national scale.
Ah, but he’s said he’ll return and he seems to be in a stubborn phase. Ok, fine. Return to Pakistan and then what? If the election’s already lost, then being inside Pakistan, on the ECL or in jail, Nawaz will have the following to contend with:
A Supreme Court packed with future chief justices as far as the eye can see who have already declared Nawaz disqualified for life; a military high command that is virtually hardwired to regard him with suspicion or loathing; and a Parliament and federal government stuffed with his political enemies.
Never say never and 2023 may as well be a political lifetime away, but if Nawaz can see a way out of the quagmire from inside Pakistan, he’s either a political genius or a historic fool. And only a fool would bet on him being the former just now.
Then again, it doesn’t look too great for Nawaz outside the country right now either. The whole point to being outside Pakistan is to begin anew the grind of fashioning a return to Pakistan.
BB’s second exile is the most likely model. The outside world and major capitals had cooled on her by then, the second stint in power having exposed her as a run-of-the-mill Third-World kleptocrat.
But like Pakistan tires of its civilians, it tires of its generals too. And the outside world eventually has use of civilians with reliable political support at home. As Musharraf’s star dipped, BB’s rose once again.
Nawaz could follow that path — but it may be harder still.
The world isn’t exactly having a democratic moment. The US/West-led liberal world order is in retreat. Pakistan has turned a corner in the fight against anti-state militancy; it doesn’t look or feel like a country on the verge of imploding like it did a decade ago.
Does Trump really care who runs Pakistan? Does Brexit Britain have time or attention for much else? There go the lead parties on BB and Musharraf’s NRO.
How pleased are the Saudis with Nawaz after he failed to deliver Pakistani troops for their little war in Yemen? Or the Gulf countries he may otherwise have good ties with? The Sharif alliance with Erdogan’s Turkey also appears to have cooled.
And then there’s China. CPEC is the obvious priority. But when the quest to oust Nawaz threatened political destabilisation, with potential knock-on effects for CPEC projects, the Chinese counselled restraint, but didn’t really do much.
Now the threat to the system has been inverted: it’s Nawaz who could cause great disruption and instability if he tries to force his way back into the system immediately. What’s in it for China to try and help salvage Nawaz’s political career in the near to medium term?
Ah, but Nawaz has said he’ll return, so that’s all that matters. Ok, fine. He’s back. They humour him a bit and allow him to run around the country. To see if he behaves and lets Parliament and government get on without him. PM Khan or PM Fill in the Blanks Sanjrani.
But return only to behave and do as he’s required? So they chuck him in jail. The sentence is already here and only a fool would think it’s just a deterrent, that they won’t enforce it if they need to.
Now there’s a problem: he’s actually in jail. The PML(N) can implode, the PML(N) can be frozen out of Parliament, but can the PML(N) or whatever the PML(N) is mutated into be made to forget about Nawaz?
The whole damn problem is that Nawaz has managed to forge a connection with a swathe of Punjab. Until that connection breaks or is withered away, Nawaz is a problem. But in a system that’s evolved to manage problems, not fix them, it’s not an unmanageable problem.
A section of the public and politics has been primed to loudly cheer incarceration; the section of the people and politics that may lean against incarceration can be drowned out; and the few quaint, democratic types left can be easily suppressed. And if it can’t?
Well, then cut a deal with him, let him out again and start the cycle all over again. Heads they win, tail everyone else loses.
And what about PM Khan? It says something that, in the twilight of his political career, on the threshold of seizing the prize he craves most, it’s still not obvious that he will. There is still a possibility of PM Fill in the Blanks Sanjrani.
By arrangement with Dawn