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Conspiracy theory season in Pakistan

Shahab Jafry (Postscript)
Filed on November 21, 2019 | Last updated on November 21, 2019 at 09.57 pm

PTI has long since become a bandwagon for yes-men.

Finally, the best part of a Pakistani electoral cycle is upon us. Forget that the economy is in trouble, there's little light at the end of the tunnel, or that the new government even failed to win precious points, or aid, in the diplomatic domain. Far, far more importantly, we're suddenly in the thick of conspiracy-theory season. Nothing could be better!

Now, anybody you'd talk to would know somebody with a direct link in the cabinet or, even more interestingly, a 'source' in the corps commanders meeting. And there are about as many predictions about the Punjab government collapsing, the federal government falling, Imran Khan leaving, etc., as there are people living and breathing in our dear Islamic Republic. Who has time for mundane things like jobs and wages in such intense times? You can always worry about tomato prices (still rising by the way) another time, can't you?

And it's that man Nawaz Sharif (three-time former Pakistani prime minister) once again who sent this shock wave through the system. Didn't we say right in this space in late July last year, just after Nawaz's conviction and just before Imran's election win, that you can never write off someone like Nawaz from something like Pakistani politics; even if you disqualify him for life and throw him in the slammer for ten years?

And so even from the dark recesses of his prison cell, it turns out, he knew just how to move the right pieces to come out on top on the chessboard of political narratives yet again. It's pretty much confirmed that he didn't fake his illness - apparently he's really quite unwell.

In the process he also created some distance between Imran's PTI (Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf) and his crucial coalition partners, especially in Punjab. They (coalition partners) openly called for letting Nawaz go for treatment, clashing with the core PTI team that rejected all such ideas. That is why the hottest conspiracy theory sees the coalition splitting in Punjab, cobbling together another alliance with the opposition, and simply taking the most important province away from Imran. There's also talk of similar desertions at the centre. Then there's that usual batch of feudal/industrial barons that are part and parcel of every government, even the cabinet in Imran's case. Word is, though nobody talks about this openly, that they are put everywhere by the powerful 'establishment' to make sure they can shake a few seats if governments get too big for their shoes and all that. And now they're itching to play their usual role once the desertions begin.

That, most likely, is why the prime minister was practically spitting venom at a CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) related motorway inauguration the other day. He was heaping scorn on the opposition, even mocking Bilawal Zardari (chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party) and mimicking his weak Urdu accent, and shouting for everyone to hear that he would not let the opposition off the hook.

PTI members present laughed and applauded no doubt because PTI has long since become a bandwagon for yes-men, just like all other mainstream Pakistani political parties. But the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) members must also have laughed watching from home because the prime minister was only making himself look silly.

But there's more. One theory says that the army is also no longer happy with Imran. His charm brought no foreign aid, no thaw in important international diplomatic relations, and no relief at all to the economy. Instead most indicators, particularly employment and inflation, are at their worst in a number of years. And you can be sure, it goes on to say, that the recent protest march in Islamabad, led by the extreme right-wing JUI-F (Jamiat Ulema e Islam-Fazal), was riding on more than a little tailwind from some of the brass.

All this noise just because Nawaz's platelets suddenly dropped and he, according to some sources, almost died in prison. Few people in the country really believe Nawaz is innocent of the mega corruption charges that led to his incarceration. Yet more and more are now convinced that he, as duly noted in last year's column mentioned above, has his claws buried too deeply in the soil of Pakistan, and he knows the system far too well to be discarded too easily. And so the cycle turns once again, however isolated. Nawaz breathes a sigh of momentary relief just as Imran, as well as the establishment clearly backing him, are not too far from panicking.

And, before signing off, let's not forget the other tsunami of speculation and no doubt countless more conspiracy theories that's just about to hit us. General Musharraf's trial for treason, initiated by the Nawaz Sharif administration in 2013 or thereabout, has concluded and the verdict will be announced in just a few days. And surely nobody has forgotten the penalty for treason in just about every constitution in the world.

You can bet a lot of people in Islamabad are losing a lot of sleep.

Shahab Jafry is a senior journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan


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