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Pakistan’s history is witness to the fact that every prime minister turfed out of office by fair means or foul has fallen back on the ‘victim’ card. This is essentially a narrative that attempts to spin the argument that the removal was unjust, a conspiracy, and deserves unrestrained condemnation. Imran Khan has followed this time honoured ‘tradition’, with added twists.

The former prime minister’s rhetoric is a ladder of escalating vituperation against the establishment, judiciary, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), and of course the opposition coalition that is now in the saddle.

If previously Imran Khan was ‘content’ to spin the US-led regime change conspiracy theory, today he stands on the martyrs’ pantheon of alleged targets for assassination.

In all these escalating charges, the biggest absence of note is evidence or proof of the strident allegation/s. But the old adage about if you repeat a lie enough times and loudly enough seems to inform Imran Khan and company’s strident (critics argue imaginary) charges (almost one a day as the rallies steamroller continues along its one-eyed path).

Actually neither the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-led coalition government nor the establishment seem inclined to do anything precipitate. This is not necessarily a consensus arrived at by these actors. The establishment may have had its hand forced to withdraw support from an increasingly wild-eyed Imran Khan unable to perform.

For the moment at least, they had little choice but to accept back in the saddle the very opposition parties they had helped push to the wall through the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI)-led coalition government and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Frequent establishment protestations of ‘neutrality’ notwithstanding, one could be forgiven for speculating whether it is ‘wargaming’ its future options even as we speak.

As far as the PML-N-led coalition government installed by a historic no-confidence vote against Imran Khan is concerned, so far it is behaving contrary to the ‘speed’ associated with Prime Minister (PM) Shahbaz Sharif.

One reason for this of course could be the difference between a prime minister and a chief minister’s job (Shahbaz Sharif earned kudos as a ‘doer’ in the latter capacity, although critics point to the anomalies, mistakes and waste associated with his haste). The other could be the parlous state of the economy, polity and society bequeathed by the disastrous Imran Khan government.

The problem boils down to taking tough economic decisions such as raising petrol and oil prices in order to swing the IMF deal that promises to open all international and bilateral lending doors. However, since the price increase is so hefty, it is liable to extract a high political cost if imposed in one go. The likely strategy being mulled by the government is a gradual increase. What remains to be seen is whether the IMF will go along with this approach.

All the difficult, politically costly decisions of the government would only become reality if all the coalition partners agree. The PML-N does not want to be at the receiving end of the almost inevitable public backlash alone. That is why, after returning from a cabinet moot with Nawaz Sharif in London, PM Shehbaz Sharif is holding consultations with his coalition allies on whatever decisions/course Nawaz Sharif has advised. If these consultations do not yield a consensus, the possible path to early elections may loom nearer.

While fresh elections would help restore the credibility and effectiveness of a returning Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition government and a full National Assembly (the present one is struggling to remain credible in the absence of the PTI opposition), the constraints outlined vis-à-vis fresh delimitations and other tasks by the ECP suggest the country will not be ready for polls before October 2022.

Beyond that lies the 90-day tenure of an interim government under whose charge general elections would occur. This implies the earliest smooth general elections can be held is early 2023, provided of course the much touted electoral reforms beloved of the government occur within this timeframe.

Between now and then of course lies the Imran Khan conundrum. Critics think PTI should not have surrendered the platform of parliament, even if its main thrust was the street and public rallies. Since his ouster, Imran Khan has unleashed a string of such rallies and used the occasion to delineate (and escalate) his ‘conspiracy’ theory/ies.

Are these theories finding resonance in the public at large? Not if the reports of dwindling numbers in the PTI rallies are any indication. Apart from the difficulties pertaining to sustaining an unending diet of public rallies, the impression is difficult to resist that Imran Khan is only preaching to the faithful at such events. The general public does not appear enthused sufficiently to lend numbers and volume to the PTI campaign.

Rallies aside, Imran Khan seems oblivious to the situation at grassroots constituency level. PTI has never been very strong in this department, a natural consequence perhaps of its urban youthia support base.

Electables, who helped PTI come close to a majority in the 2018 elections, have abandoned the party along with Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan. If Lahore provides any indication, the PTI sun has all but set in Punjab, or at the very least to be in decline. Without the help of the establishment, the PTI seems destined to drift (increasingly) on the margins of mainstream electoral politics.

The government seems inclined to wear out Imran Khan’s rallies thrust while quietly preparing possible cases against him and his cohorts that would bring into play the traditional political weaponisation of corruption and other charges. But the PML-led government does not want to end up in the cul-de-sac in which the PTI ended up because of its reliance on and carte blanche to NAB.

Consultations hopefully over, PM Shehbaz Sharif is expected to make a major policy statement today (May 17, 2022). Hopes for better times notwithstanding, don’t hold your breath.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

Rashed Rahman

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