The Consistent Pattern of Shattering of Consensus in Pakistan

There is a consistent pattern at work in Pakistan since 2013, (or before, if you date it from Benazir’s assassination in the run up to the 2008 general election). Every time a political consensus evolves regarding core issues, some extraneous event impacts the consensus adversely and shatters it. First time it happened post 2013 election was on November 1st, 2013, when Hakim Ullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan’s militant group, the TTP, was killed by a US drone in North Waziristan.  Mehsud was acting as the guarantor and facilitator of the peace deal the newly elected Sharif government was trying to make with the Pakistani Taliban for ceasefire and end to abetment of the Afghan resistance in return for pardon and massive development work in the FATA region.  Pakistanis in general were happy with the peace prospect. All political parties welcomed it. Hopes were pinned on Hakimullah Mehsud as the man with enough clout to make the peace deal stick. His death put a swift end to all hopes of peace in FATA through negotiation. A war followed that continues to this day.

The second time political consensus was shattered was on April 19th, 2014, barely eleven months after Nawaz Sharif’s government was sworn into office and had just begun to get its grip on affairs of governance.

On April 19, 2014, a reputed journalist and one of Nawaz Sharif’s close friends, Hamid Mir, was shot repeatedly in his lower body while being driven to his office in the city of Karachi. Hamid was lying unconscious in the intensive care unit of a hospital when his brother accused the Director General of Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI, of masterminding the attack on Hamid Mir. Mir’s employer and Pakistan’s largest TV network, GEO, began to show pictures of DG ISI minutes after the allegation was leveled by Mir’s brother. Very quickly, the sensational news was common currency in national and international media without the presentation of any evidence by Geo News Network in support of repeated allegation.

The absence of evidence turned mass sympathy for Hamid Mir into anger at Geo News Network for denigrating Pakistan’s security apparatus without a shred of evidence.  During this rise in mass anger, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called on Hamid Mir to inquire after the latter’s state of health.

Mir is no ordinary journalist. He is Pakistan’s best known anchor person and a friend of Nawaz Sharif. Under ordinary circumstances, the PM calling on such a personality after he is shot by terrorists would be in order. Under special circumstances created post Mir’s employer Geo News Network’s repeated yet baseless allegation, PM’s visit was a serious mistake on his part. The mass anger in Pakistan shifted from Geo News Network to Nawaz Sharif’s person.

At the time of Hamid Mir shooting, the Sharif government was doing well. On its watch, the Rupee had risen ten points against the dollar for the first time in a decade. Nawaz had succeeded in winning a national consensus on his policy of negotiating peace with the insurgents in Pakistan’s FATA area. There was a general hope that peace will prevail under the Nawaz led government.

Nawaz’s unwise response to the events post Mir shooting eroded the above mentioned consensus as the Pakistani street began to question their prime minister’s patriotism. People began to wonder why Nawaz Sharif chose to side with the subversive forces inside a commercial venture (i.e. Geo News Network) rather than defending the integrity of the state’s most vital institutions. Questions rose as to why the PM had never called on any of the bereaved whose sons and spouses had died with their boots on during the war on terror.

Street anger soon crystallized into organized agitation calling for Nawaz’s ouster. In mid-August 2014,  Imran Khan and Tahir Ul Qadri joined hands to stage a sit in outside the parliament. During the four months long sit in with impressive attendance, Imran Khan rose as the national hero. A new national consensus developed as people began to envision Imran Khan as the next Prime Minister of Pakistan. By the end of 2014, the nation began to anticipate the fall of the Sharif government and mid-term election.

This consensus was shattered again by an act of terrorism and Imran Khan’s unwise response to it. A school in Peshawar was attacked by terrorists on December 16th, 2014. The School attack killed 132 Pakistani students in the provincial capital of KPK. On the  heels of the shock and grief caused by the horrific attack,  Imran Khan called off his movement against the government at precisely the time he had promised to take it to the next level – i.e., street agitation all over Pakistan.

Political leaders cannot afford to build hopes and then dash them suddenly. It is the worst thing they can do to their following. Hence on December 18, 2014, as Imran was pictured embracing the very Sharif he had been vilifying for four months, the consensus that had built around Imran Khan began to corrode.  The same has not been rebuilt with similar conviction ever since.

Having weathered the sit in, Nawaz Sharif and his ruling party, the PML-N (or “Noon League” as it is called in Pakistan) began to concentrate on governance. The PML-N seemed to have gotten re entrenched as the local body election results in 2015 and 2016 showed the Noon League in forefront at the grass roots nearly all over Pakistan. The local body election results gave birth to a fresh belief that the PML N will sweep the next general election, to be held in 2018, as no other party in Pakistan seemed strong enough politically to challenge its nationwide strength. PML-N cushioned itself again as a fresh national consensus evolved regarding its leadership prowess.

It was at this juncture that the Panama Leaks, an extraneous event, suddenly catapulted Nawaz Sharif’s leadership into crisis which kept getting deeper and deeper as the ruling Party failed to manage the allegation of money laundering by its leader wisely. Nawaz Sharif denied the allegation of money laundering. His denial lacked cogency.  Despite that, PML-N party cadre supported Nawaz, which brought the integrity of the entire party into question. The case is now in Supreme Court amidst an intensive media trial. Every day there are new revelations regarding Sharif family’s ill-gotten wealth as new witnesses surface to tell their first-hand account on TV channels.

The Panama Leaks have shattered the belief that Nawaz Sharif and his PML –N would continue to lead Pakistan beyond 2018. Because of the political mishandling of Panama Leaks at the party cadre level, should Sharif be removed from office due to court verdict or some other development, the fall of the central government is eminent.

A corrosion of consensus weakens not just a polity but also the incumbents, who must rule in the vacuum produced by the shattering of the very consensus they previously enjoyed in office. In addition to suffering from a repeatedly shattered political consensus, Pakistan is plagued by a government whose top executive is besieged by the investigation of money laundering.

At the time of writing, no political party is strong enough to fill the vacuum created by PML-N’s political enfeeblement post Panama Leaks. Meanwhile, as Pakistan moves away from the US, it is forging regional ties rigorously. Pakistan is forging stronger commercial ties with China through CPEC and with Russia through unprecedented joint military exercises. During this period of transition, two of Pakistan’s immediate neighbors, Afghanistan and India, have joined forces against Pakistan. Both are backed by the US, Pakistan’s ally no more yet a country with strong intelligence network inside Pakistan and unprecedented military presence in Central Asia. Pakistan is thus sitting on two fault lines, each crossing the other at critical political junctures.  One fault line is created by the fact that Pakistan’s structural shift away from its traditional ally, the US, is not accompanied by a shift in software application that would end the operation of intensive and extensive US intelligence within Pakistan. The other fault line is the political power vacuum caused repeatedly by the shattering of consensus through events triggered by forces extraneous to Pakistan’s main political function.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are indeed relevant to its defense, but the force Pakistan needs to manage its current risks is that of human intelligence.

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Author: zeenia satti

Zeenia Satti is a political analyst and columnist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She has studied Middle Eastern Affairs at Harvard University, USA. She works as Executive Director at PPLDM, Pakistan's People Led Disaster Management. (ppldm.net). Follow her on twitter@zssatti.

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