The talk show hosts are having a whale of a time. Like ever in times of political wrangling and when realignments are taking shape, their ratings have gone through the roof. Amid informed predictions and studied but patently insincere denials, many a pundit is offering his say on the developments. One thing by now is though more or less certain. Nearly four years after the NRO and three since its progenitor’s unceremonious ouster, the lay of the land is going to be much in consonance with what Musharraf had worked out to be as his self-perpetuation plan.
That plan fell through. It may not have worked even otherwise, but the Benazir murder turned out to be the final nail in the bargain sounding a most welcome death knell to the Musharraf regime.
Afterwards there was many a botched attempt to bring the PPP and the Musharraf handmaiden Q on the same side of the fence – most notably on the initiative of the now-slain Salmaan Taseer that would have resulted in the overthrow of the Shahbaz Sharif government in Punjab in early 2009. That too didn’t come to pass. Such are the political compulsions now that the PPP and the PML(Q) are finally going to sit together on the treasury benches and partake of the perks of power, albeit only at the centre for the moment.
Will the two further ratchet up the ante by revisiting the ‘Get Punjab Plan’ is moot, but the largest province of the country remains a plum that both must be dying to lay their hands on, maybe without haste unbecoming.
Though much in politics is such, many are already dubbing the alliance as unholy. One thing is granted. Strange bedfellows the PPP and the PML(Q) make but in the realm of realpolitik this deal makes sense, as it is a win-win situation for both.
What the PPP gains is enormous. With the Chaudhrys delivering the third largest block of votes in the National Assembly and a very sizable chunk in the senate, the PPP will have insured itself against the ranting and destabilising antics of the MQM and the JUI(F). To the PPP, putting them in place would be a nice feeling for both have ditched its administration at almost every critical instant, political or economic – at some points even reducing it to a minority government. With them standing apart, the PPP and its government was put in an embarrassing spot; not just for its lost face but also because its ability to implement tough economic decisions was seriously impaired.
This is not to say that the government was doing a great job at economic management. But the MQM and JUI(F)’s intransigence meant additional subsidies on petroleum products. And the non-acceptance of the RGST (though it was not further taxing the people and only documenting the economy) denied a major revenue stream to a cash-strapped administration. Such unwelcome corollaries seriously reduced the PPP government’s room to manoeuvre.
Now, with the budget looming and the IMF and the US stern and unyielding, had the MQM and the JUI(F) stuck to their populist but unrealistic guns, the danger to the federal government’s already tenuous hold was clear and present.
So this alliance not only takes the PPP past that crucial hurdle, but with the next election in a year or thereabouts, promises it other gains too.
No longer constrained to live with the MQM’s coercion, and bearing it with a grin and a periodic humbling visit to ‘90’ too, the PPP now has the freedom to reconsolidate its position in its bastion, Sindh. Previously, the most the PPP could do was deny the MQM the much coveted keys of local government in Karachi and Hyderabad. Now it could, and it should, try and restore, if not complete peace and tranquility, at least some measure of law and order in Karachi.
While the rewards of this alliance for the PPP are by no means insignificant, the gains for the PML(Q) are humongous. Historically, fish may on occasions have survived out of water, no PML has ever survived out of power, the PML(N) being the only honourable exception. And the threat to the Q and the politics of the Chaudhrys indeed was existential.
Already whittled down and split in factions, such as the ‘Like-minded’ and the euphemistically titled ‘Unification Group’, any dilly-dallying now may have been tantamount to courting extinction, for its fair-weather stalwarts definitely know the value of opportunism. And without the elixir of power, most of them are quite unabashedly going to move over to pastures greener.
As if it was not bad enough, shorn of all political power and patronage, the many cases of graft would have further hounded the Chaudhrys. This is a fate they would not want to countenance, for since the 1960’s, barring short spells of the PPP governments, they have mostly been either part of the power structure or on the right side of it.
One with claims to political punditry has come forth with the gem that post-budget, the PPP will rub the Chaudhrys the wrong way. Though nothing is permanent or impossible in politics, this seems highly unlikely for now that it has chosen to let bygones be bygones, the PPP must want to milk the Chaudhrys to the maximum. And what could be a better opportunity to take the alliance beyond the Senate elections come March 2012 and then to the hustings – whenever, but obviously not too distant then. A seat adjustment with the PML(Q) in the Punjab will split the rightist vote to the PPP’s advantage (it should be remembered that followed by the PPP, the Q overall banked the second largest chunk of votes countrywide in 2008).
This changes the dynamic for the PML(N), not just the second most significant political entity but other than the PPP also only the second anti-establishment force. With its power centre already reduced to the central and northern Punjab, the alliance of the PPP and its nemesis from within, the Q, presents it with a major challenge that may lead to further erosion in its electoral position.
That and other endeavours of the puppeteers to prop up an IJI-type alliance of the right with Imran Khan seemingly part of the arrangement enhance the threat for the PML(N). How it will cope with these will determine the political landscape of the Punjab as well as national politics in the years to come. That is unless some other spanners are in the works.
The writer is Sports and Magazines Editor, Pakistan Today.