True to form

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The game is on! True to form, the politicians are trying to undo each other while the military establishment smacks its lips in anticipation. We have been here so many times before it’s not even amusing any more.

The PPP is feeling the heat in Sindh from the military establishment. It wants to end the writ of the Rangers to “clean-up” Sindh but is politically and morally much too weak to exercise its constitutional powers and cut the umbilical chord with the federal government. At the very least, it wants a reprieve for Dr Asim Hussain (bail) and Ayyan Ali (exit).

But the military establishment has succeeded in creating so much goodwill about its clean-up operation in Karachi that it is difficult for PM Nawaz Sharif to rein it in. Therefore the PPP is blowing hot and cold in anger and frustration. It has allied itself with Imran Khan in challenging Mr Sharif’s right to be prime minister but confined its protest to parliament and the election commission so that the military establishment doesn’t get any excuse to wrap up the system. In its books, a bad and uncooperative Nawaz Sharif is a million times better than a good and zealous Raheel Sharif. Therefore, while it may launch half hearted protests on the streets here and there just to show that its heart is in the right place, it will not join forces with Imran Khan to overthrow Mr Sharif via street agitation and violence that can only end when the third umpire gives Mr Sharif out. To this end, the PPP’s Farooq Naek is talking to the PMLN’s Ishaq Dar about the contours of a new anti-corruption law that encompasses Panamaleaks while the PPP’s Khurshid Shah is talking to the PMLN Speaker of the NA, Ayaz Sadiq, about the TORs for any proposed judicial inquiry. Neither side, it appears, is too interested in genuinely resolving the matter and both are going through the motions of intense negotiations, partly to demonstrate seriousness of purpose for the benefit of an outraged public and partly to keep Imran Khan in the loop so that he doesn’t break away and embark on a dangerous solo game to provoke the military establishment.

Imran Khan’s strategy is equally clear. He senses that if Mr Sharif survives this crisis he is set to win the next general elections in 2018 and put paid to Imran’s ambitions. So he is trying to whip up a storm in the country and get rid of the prime minister one way or another. His tactics are clear enough. He is mounting pressure on the SC and EC to disqualify Mr Sharif. It doesn’t much matter to him that the evidence he has collected and presented doesn’t amount to anything in the eyes of due process of law just as long as it keeps the anti-corruption drive in high gear in the eyes of the public and brings these institutions under pressure. The real focus is on the street protests that are meant to supplement the pressure on the SC and EC and provoke the government into blundering into another crisis such as the Model Town one two years ago which has become a millstone around the neck of the PMLN.

In his desperation, Imran Khan has now publicly dragged General Raheel Sharif, the army chief, into the fray. He has accused Mr Sharif of trying to “bribe” General Sharif into acquiescence by offering to make him Field Marshal. This is patently ridiculous. If Mr Sharif isn’t ready to extend General Sharif’s tenure as army chief, why on earth should he make him a Field Marshal, and that too in this day and age?

To be sure, General Sharif is an honourable man. Many months ago, in order to quell idle talk about wanting an extension in service, he authorized a statement on his behalf clearly denying any such ambitions and going so far as to say that even if an extension were offered to him he wouldn’t take it in the institutional interests of the army. Unfortunately, his current silence on the subject, when such talk has drowned out all other chatter, is giving grist to Imran Khan’s mills and adding to the uncertainty and instability that we see all around us.

Mr Sharif has played his cards well so far by not allowing Panamaleaks to overwhelm his government. Next month he is due to announce a change in high command at GHQ. Once that happens, the threatening sting in the tail of Imran Khan will be taken out and the notion of any third umpire triggering upheaval will dissipate.

But, as they say, there’s many a slip between the cup and lip. And a month is a long time in politics, especially if the military establishment has taken a collective decision to step in rather than step back. But if it hasn’t, then Imran Khan’s histrionics are fated to end with a whimper instead of a bang.

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