Guessing game

Source: Published in Current Affairs on Friday, August 22, 2014

Even in the best-case scenario, finding some kind of middle ground between the PTI and Tahirul Qadri on one side and the PML-N federal government on the other would have been difficult.

But the skittishness both sides have showed on engaging each other at all has made the possibility of a negotiated political settlement that much more difficult. After finally accepting that talks could provide a way out of the impasse and proposing a raft of ideas, the PTI quickly re-escalated matters yesterday by rejecting talks altogether.

Meanwhile, after overnight speculation that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would at long last use parliament as the forum to address the country and his opponents, Mr Sharif proved true to form and declined to take centre stage in that most democratic of forums, the floor of the National Assembly.

One side of the problem here is clearly the PTI supremo Imran Khan’s flip-flop approach to talks, sometimes seemingly wanting an exit from the corner he has painted himself and his party into, while at other times seemingly indulging in rabble-rousing in front of the crowd that has assembled at his demand.

At times, it is difficult to know who is in charge — the PTI chief or the crowd he has assembled — given that the PTI switches back and forth between providing a glimmer of hope and returning to its maximalist position with breathtaking speed.

For a country that has seen much political turmoil over its seven decades of existence, it would not be out of place to suggest that never before has Pakistan seen a political party and its leader demonstrate such whimsicalness on the national stage as it has with the PTI in recent days.

Even so, efforts at talks must not be abandoned, and despite inflexible demands the government must push on, while the PTI must refrain from imposing preconditions.

If Mr Khan and his PTI’s strategy is difficult to comprehend, the other side of the protest movement against the PML-N government — Tahirul Qadri and his supporters — are virtually impossible to fathom.

Mr Qadri, a religious preacher with a small but fervid support base, is truly seeking to hijack the country and impose his will upon it. To the extent that he has made demands calling for improvements in governance and public service delivery, Mr Qadri makes some sense.

But anything more and he will need to prove he has genuine political support by participating in the electoral process. Surely, the political process is open enough to allow Mr Qadri to prove his legitimate support base.

At the other end, regrettably, Prime Minister Sharif failed to capitalise on the mood in parliament yesterday. The parliamentary resolution reiterating that democracy is the only way ahead for Pakistan would have been that much more meaningful had the prime minister himself added his voice to the consensus.

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