The emerging equilibrium – Abbas Nasir


HE forces of status quo seem busy these days tinkering with the system they midwifed themselves, just a few years ago, but their desired new equilibrium will start to take shape and become clearer once the many disparate pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place.

Till then, a blurred and confused picture will continue to present itself because of the many intangibles and imponderables and also because those who have gained much from the status quo, and now fear the consequences of the slightest change in it, are jumping in to play the spoiler.

Before you put down the paper and write off this column as being too oblique and obtuse, allow me to state things with more clarity. As I sit down to write these lines, I see news flashing on the media that PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif was offloaded from a Doha-bound flight at Lahore airport.

The grant of bail to Mr Sharif after a long period of incarceration, followed by court orders that he could go abroad for a medical check-up as he is a cancer survivor, within a fortnight of each other, signaled his readiness to play a part in moving the game along on the establishment chessboard.

Shehbaz Sharif was arrested in September 2020 by the notorious NAB headed by a video-compromised former judge of the Supreme Court. The bureau has earned infamy for imprisoning the government’s political opponents for long periods without proving their guilt in a court of law.

While the PTI part of the hybrid regime expressed unhappiness at the grant of bail to Mr Sharif two weeks back when a court in Lahore allowed him to travel abroad this past Friday, government ministers erupted in harsh condemnation and their social media supporters were outraged.

The PTI ministers seemed lashing out in fear as they may have seen greater meaning in the sudden loosening of the noose around Shehbaz Sharif’s neck. Informed commentators in the federal capital were insistent that the PML-N president was going to London to convince his brother to soften the hard-line he has been taking against the non-PTI part of the hybrid regime.

In return, a raft of concessions are said to be on the table. The establishment seems to have reached the conclusion that the hit the economy is taking because of PTI’s ineptitude and the Covid crisis, is exacerbated by political confrontation in the country as no stability is in sight.

When a ‘high official’ met TV anchors last month for some seven hours with the main purpose of enlisting the media’s support for backchannel diplomacy with India, it was clear to the discerning eye that similar support will eventually also have to be sought from elsewhere.

Who knows if this support ie a political consensus is seen as so vital because of the shape of a possible future deal and the concessions that will need to be made to make it work? The status of Kashmir and the Kashmiris must surely remain a major concern.

Simultaneous with the backchannel with India, the US troop pullout from Afghanistan has begun. Rightly or otherwise, the US believes Pakistan has considerable influence over the Afghan Taliban and should help with a peaceful transition.

Whether it is regional peace, foreign policy and security challenges or the economy or the vitiated political environment within the country, the establishment made its own bed, but it seems reluctant to lie in it by itself.

Tragically for it at this critical juncture, its hybrid partner does not appear capable of shouldering or even sharing the burden. So, the establishment seems to be desperately reaching out to secure wider support. The PPP leadership and PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif don’t seem to have an issue with extending a hand of reciprocity.

But Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif have not been won over and have been adamantly sticking to their narrative. They will inevitably raise the issue of civilian supremacy in such critical decision-making and also raise the question of legitimacy of the stewards in charge of the process.

Even if he is allowed to leave — and given the powers involved, it is likely that he will — Shehbaz Sharif will have a mountain to climb in London to bring his elder brother over to his side (that is to a conciliatory path) getting the latter to abandon his route of confrontation.

One can be sure, the younger brother will argue that at this point it would be strategically prudent to come on board as the gain to the party will be far greater in the long run because it can only go from strength to strength, unlike the perils of confrontation such as what it faced in the early 2000s.

The elder Sharif may say he is finding considerable strength in the sort of grassroots traction his narrative is getting and may argue that forming a possible future government without the authority to formulate and implement policy will be pointless.

And that the fundamental issues of who has the right to govern, civilian-parliamentary supremacy and constitutional rule need to be resolved before any journey back to the corridors of power, given the impediments that are going to emerge if those questions remains unaddressed.

These divergent points of view and different players in the game present a number of intangibles and imponderables, as do the dynamics in capitals such as Islamabad, New Delhi, London, Washington, Kabul, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and even Beijing.

A clearer picture, the new equilibrium is still some way away.