Stage set for final round? – Abbas Nasir

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CONTROLLING the narrative and sowing confusion and discord in the ranks of the adversary are among the major objectives of information warfare, which, therefore, must be a carefully calibrated exercise. Otherwise, the risk of something backfiring becomes very real.

Social media users will know that whatever your political or ideological persuasion, there will be individuals who will readily agree and those who will not. And then there will be a third type — a troll army in huge numbers. This will inevitably represent the interests of an institution or political party.

Those in the last category are difficult to engage with. Their self-righteous adherence to an agenda is such that anyone expressing a sentiment contrary to their worldview is deemed worthy of contempt, of being called all sorts of names and being overwhelmed into silence.

Those who orchestrate such campaigns, deploying such tools routinely, must get lulled into a sense of superiority, as their numerical strength on social media is considered enough to overpower anybody expressing dissent. This would open up room for miscalculations.

To be honest, not just the drivers of such handles and content but even seasoned analysts get thrown off the scent of the story they are following. For example, look at the leak this week of the meeting between the PML-N’s Mohammad Zubair and the army chief.

Nawaz Sharif’s address and his daughter’s public statements marked the end of the PML-N’s appeasement policy.

I can’t be sure if the leak was prompted by PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s on-point virtual address to the multiparty conference (MPC) or Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s statement, following the news of the Gilgit-Baltistan briefing, for key opposition leaders at the ISI Mess, Islamabad.

After learning of the meeting, she lashed out at politicians meeting military leaders clandestinely and said if there were issues of national security, parliament was the right forum for a briefing rather than the mess of a security agency.

She also said her party was banning such contacts as per the PML-N constitution. Therefore, when the leak came in the shape of a TV interview by the military spokesman, a number of analysts termed it a serious setback to the PML-N, with some of them saying it marked the collapse of the party’s narrative.

Added weight to their stance was lent by the statement of the spokesman when he said the second meeting between the PML-N leader and army chief also included the DG ISI and that the cases against Nawaz Sharif and his daughter were also discussed.

According to the spokesman, the chief told the PML-N leader it was up to the courts to decide that issue as his institution had nothing to with it. For his part, Mr Zubair denied seeking any concessions. Then, Maulana Ghafoor Haidery appeared in a TV talk show with his own leak about a meeting with the army chief.

The JUI-F leader said during his party’s ‘azadi march’ last year, they were invited by the army chief for a meeting in which the latter told them to stay away from whatever ‘we are doing to Nawaz Sharif’ as the matter did not concern them.

This is where I got the sense that the spin machine was losing its grasp over the narrative as a leak which seemed aimed at discrediting a major opposition leader was boomeranging and shifting the focus on to the spin doctors actively involved in politics.

The leak also opened the doors to considerable discussion in the media. At least for a few hours all controls had been ignored and participants said whatever they wanted to about the appropriateness and desirability of such meetings and their implications. That may well turn out to be a flash-in-the-pan moment.

What appears clear, however, is that Nawaz Sharif’s address and his daughter’s public statements marked the end of the PML-N’s appeasement policy. The ‘dealophiles’ had been given months and months to deliver some space to the party to operate in but failed.

A handful of hawks around the father and daughter have convinced them that defiance is what the rank and file in Punjab want, as was evident in the reaction on the ground to Nawaz Sharif’s MPC address, and that any other option will risk losing support.

A source close to the PML-N duo insists that they have decided whatever the consequences they will follow the new strategy: “They are determined that the authorities can tear up and burn Maryam’s passport and jail her, they won’t be allowed to use that as leverage with the father.” Brave words.

Nonetheless, there are question marks over a number of issues. The foremost, of course, is whether the PML-N has sufficiently motivated cadres to transform its formidable electoral support into street power?

Or will any planned protests, marches and rallies solely have to rely on Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F? And if that is indeed the case, will the cleric and his committed followers pack enough punch on their own to pressurise the government backers to rethink their support to the incumbents?

The state of the economy is a major factor. If the opposition’s planned protests gain momentum, there will inevitably be concerns regarding the impact of a long-drawn-out tussle around the country on economic growth that has already been hit by the pandemic. Can this force a change in thinking?

On the other hand, if the parties in the main opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, are unable to establish a meaningful physical presence on the ground, then the MPC speeches and pledges will amount to no more than bluster.

In such an eventuality, will our liberties, including whatever little media freedom there is today, take a serious hit? Will the human rights situation worsen and the existing quantum of provincial autonomy become a thing of the past?

Among questions galore, what is becoming increasingly clear is that Nawaz Sharif and his political heir are not willing to let the status quo stand and will do all in their power to alter it.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020