INSCRUTABLE — that would be one way of describing Pakistani politics. Connoisseurs of politics, particularly Punjabi politics, have been sent into a tizzy this week with Babar Awan’s overture to Pervez Elahi. Did it mean something? Why now? Smart move, dumb move? What next? They do love their politics down in Punjab.
Let’s start with the obvious: this was Babar Awan’s idea and, as consigliere to Zardari, the plan emanated from the innermost of inner circles. All blame/credit for this idea must be laid at the Zardari-Awan doorstep.
So let’s try and figure out what this was all about. These kinds of moves work at two levels: signalling and unintended consequences. Since it was a public overture, the signal being sent was public too. The potential recipients are not hard to figure out: either the PML-N or the MQM, possibly both.
The MQM has been, as its wont, a pesky ally, carping, complaining, threatening and involved in all sorts of trouble in Karachi.
Trouble is, the MQM’s support is critical for the PPP. One, the PPP needs the MQM’s MPs in Islamabad to keep the coalition intact. Two, ruling Sindh, or even the centre, becomes difficult when the MQM is shut out — instability in Karachi holds all sorts of unsavoury possibilities for national political stability.
But the MQM’s internal political calculus isn’t some big mystery. The party’s raison d’être, its be all and end all, is control of Karachi. The MQM will partner with whomever, in whatever framework, if it feels the partnership furthers its goal of controlling Karachi for all times to come.
Right now the MQM is better off staying inside the coalition with the PPP than leaving it. Reason being, the PPP has taken a very hands-off approach to Karachi. Rehman Malik is rushed to Karachi periodically — much to Zulfikar Mirza’s chagrin — but his job is fire-fighting, not crisis resolution.
Zardari understands the MQM’s game, or at least he once did. (Legend has it when the inclusion of the MQM in the Sindh government came up for discussion at Zardari House in Karachi, most in the room were opposed to it. After hearing the reservations, Zardari put a question to the room: who among you can ensure peace in Karachi if the MQM is kept out? His question was met with silence. The MQM joined the Sindh government soon afterwards.)
So if this flirtation with the PML-Q was designed to give a warning to the MQM — ‘we have other options to replace your 25 MNAs’ — it seems like an entirely unnecessary exercise: the MQM has what it really wants, notwithstanding the theatrics and routine posturing. Perhaps the consigiliere is trying to be smarter than his boss?
The other possible recipients of the signal sent out by the PPP this week are Mian Sahib and the PML-N. But even here Babar Awan may have been too clever by half.
Mian Sahib’s verbal swipes against the government convince no one, including the hawks in his party urging him to strike against the government. Much of it is form. But assume for a minute it isn’t, that Mian Sahib and his boys are in fact interested in striking.
The political map of Punjab is such that the N-League is clearly the No 1 player in the province. With or without the PML-Q, the PML-N has a strong hand in the province. So why should it fear the PPP talking to the Q-League?
Babar Awan’s message, to the extent it was directed at the PML-N, would amount to this: we have ways of squeezing you, making you uncomfortable on your home turf and maybe even stealing your base from under your nose; don’t mess with us.But that kind of message wouldn’t even get Mian Sahib to look up from his morning siri pai. To understand why, you need to know the lay of the land of Punjab politics. If you know your Vairyo family from your Gujrat players and can tell a Hamid Nasir Chattha from a Manzoor Wattoo, you begin to develop some appreciation for the complexity of politics in the province.
Fiendishly complex it may be, but of an order of magnitude more complex is finding a plausible equation that could defeat the PML-N in the province right now.
The N-League’s popularity in Punjab is such that it is acting as a centripetal force, drawing further support towards it. Thanks to Awan’s ham-fistedness, the N-League’s centripetal force may draw in more support in the days ahead.
The PML-Q, a house already divided into more factions and groups that anyone cares to keep track of it, has been convulsed by Awan’s recce. Will the Forward Bloc, leaning towards the N-League, be strengthened? Quite possibly.
In fact, when a house is so terribly divided against itself as the PML-Q is, the best course of action is to leave it alone for a while. Let the internal players figure out a way of reordering things and then engage it as a whole, the full PML-Q or most parts of it.
Awan’s approach, though, may actually have made the job of bringing back under the Q-League banner the disaffected and alienated members that much more difficult. The Awan cat among the PML-Q pigeons may snag the odd support here and there, but most of the pigeons could fly off to other camps.
There is a further problem: the PPP itself has been roiled by the approach. Jiyalas, particularly from Gujrat, who felt the wrath of the Chaudhries during the Musharraf era have been shaken by the sight of the PPP leader’s right-hand man, and originator of all political schemes at the moment, appearing by the side of Pervaiz Elahi.
So here’s what we are left with: Awan’s idea to approach Elahi was unnecessary if the target was the MQM — it isn’t going anywhere, and has honed its political blackmailing tactics to perfection — and it was counter-productive if the target was the PML-N — the PML-N isn’t all that ruffled, while the PML-Q and PPP are having to deal with internal fallouts.
Unnecessary and/or counter-productive — sound familiar? It seems to have become the PPP’s style of politics of late. Or, more precisely, Consigliere Babar Awan’s style of politics.