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Political temperature on the rise

Is the political tempo on the rise due to domestic and regional issues making headlines, especially the feverish activity at the level of centre-province relations as well as at the diplomatic level?

The Panama case has not been out of sight for months now. Previously, a court case was hardly ever handled in this profusely tenacious way in public, whereby all decorum reserved for the litigation process was set aside. The anti-PML-N forces have pinned their hopes on getting rid of Nawaz Sharif at this stage so that it considerably weakens his party for the 2018 elections and improves the electoral performance of its major competitor in Punjab, the PTI. Even as there is no clear indication of the way the court verdict will go, the PTI and the JI have taken the lead in the media trial.

The PPP, ANP and various other parties have shied away from building pressure on this count, apart from the occasional – and often personal – remarks about Nawaz Sharif and his family. These parties look at the whole issue in the context of a potential clash of institutions and political destabilisation, which could be detrimental for democracy. There is a general understanding in political circles as well as social media that the Panama case is essentially a political issue far more than a moral issue relating to corruption. Curiously, the ISPR has also tweeted about the military’s acceptance of the prospective verdict of the case.

The disappearance of the three Zardari aides in Sindh has once again brought the tension between the federal and Sindh governments to the surface. What has actually happened: political vendetta, the implication of the abducted people in criminal activity or simply pressure tactics applied against the provincial government? Are there grave missing points in the much-touted understanding between the PML-N and the PPP? Is it part of the bargain, if at all, to keep the pot boiling or is it the work of other formidable actors operating in the grey area beyond the purview of the law?

Within Sindh, the MQM’s White Paper has stirred the political debate once again; the paper criticised the institutionalised division between urban and rural sectors of Sindh for decades. The two adversarial twins, the PPP and the MQM, remain tied up in their conflict rooted in what is metaphorically and conceptually called the ‘indivisible territory’. Their struggle is about occupying the shared political space that defies the application of legal, moral, social and political rules of the game which are acceptable to both sides. The latest expression of their political conflict is the transfer of the powers of the mayor of Karachi to the Sindh government under the controversial local government legislation. The MQM has lost a major foothold in the prevalent structure of financial and administrative power in the province.

With the political temperature rising in the context of the centre-province and PPP-MQM relations, the ongoing protest of the breakaway MQM faction, the PSP, in Karachi reflects a strategy to keep itself in the public eye. This seems to draw on the PTI’s strategy of remaining visible in a news-making mode of activity. The PSP’s prospects for becoming the ‘real’ MQM without Altaf Hussain were considerably damaged after August 23,                   2016 when the MQM-Pakistan started its new career without the party leader and thus rendered the PSP initiative infructuous. The PSP leadership is now desperately trying to make a noise in order to become relevant for Mohajir politics in Karachi and Hyderabad.

The JI is fighting for its survival as a political entity by seeking its presence in the legislature in the forthcoming elections. With no assured cluster of electoral constituencies in any province to support its democratic credentials – as enjoyed by the JUI-F in KP – the JI has now moved to the street in Karachi. The party wants to move ahead from the perceived position of the PTI’s protege in KP where Pervez Khattak has reduced it to a camp-follower in terms of policy and practice. Being incapable of carving out a niche for itself in KP’s power politics without challenging the PTI, the only space available for it was its erstwhile constituency in Karachi.

While public activity on the street, over the electronic media in the form of adversarial talk shows and, sometimes, in the form of a physical attack on fellow members of elected bodies – such as in the Peshawar District Council last week – continues to attract public attention, the issuance of a death sentence against Indian spy Kulbushan Yadav by a military tribunal has suddenly created a diplomatic crisis. This led to a media war between India and Pakistan that started immediately after the verdict.

One can speculate that behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity also started at the same time. Much more than the actual activities of the Indian spy in terms of his contacts with anti-state elements in Pakistan are involved here. This includes the power play among the world powers. One can imagine that the latter would try to defuse the crisis as early as possible.

At home, the defence minister has tried to assure that the death sentence of Kulbushan Yadav is not carried out without due process. He has made an appeal for amnesty to the president. Meanwhile, the Indian media has most predictably hit the roof. Diplomacy in a political environment characterised by vitriol of the worst kind emanating from the two sides of the spectrum is bound to suffer. On a larger scale, the world opinion has yet to give its final verdict.

The disappearance of a retired Pakistan Army colonel in Nepal near the border with India has further complicated the situation. A military analyst said on TV that this development could lead to the production of a dead body from Pakistan in exchange for a dead body from India. The upshot is that Indo-Pakistan relations have suddenly taken a plunge.

At the other end, Lyari don Uzair Baloch’s confession about his links with Iran’s secret agency has led to a rise in the political temperature on the Western side of the border. Pakistan seems to be in the midst of domestic and diplomatic crises, which do not point to a stable condition of political and international relations. What is needed is a mature handling of the situation. That, in turn, requires an understanding of the destabilising potential of the persistence of conflicts within the country as well as within the region. One can only hope for a deft handling of the issues at hand whereby peace and harmony, instead of tension and confusion, emerge as milestones of political strategy at home and foreign policy abroad.

The rising political temperature has many facets. The much-awaited court verdict in the Panama case has the daunting potential to circumvent the political process. The street action of several big and small parties and party factions points to the absence of the conflict-resolution role of parliament. The people of Pakistan have every right to live their lives without street politics that hampers their daily pursuits through awful traffic jams, the destruction of social peace and the pursuit of litigation outside the court rather than inside.

The writer is a professor at LUMS.

Mohammad Waseem, "Political temperature on the rise," The News. 2017-04-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Panama leaks , Political temperature , Democracy , Corruption , Politicians , Leadership , PM Nawaz Sharif , Pervez Khattak , PTI , PPP , MQM