There is no doubt that, on the face of it, the Zardari Administration has handled the political crisis of Imran Khan’s and Tahirul Qadri’s previous marches much better than the Nawaz Administration has so far. However, the constant comparisons that political pundits have made between the two situations are not only unfair but also erroneous.
The reason that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government was able to handle the situation with “calm” was not because Zardari is some sort of a political mastermind. Contrary to what we would like to believe, the PPP’s response was not part of some strong commitment to a democratic plan or a political master stroke by the party’s leadership.
I see three key differences between the situation as it was during the PPP’s tenure and as it is during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) time, which can explain PPP’s calmness and PML-N’s nervousness in the face of the proverbial storm.
Firstly, the political situation before and after the elections of 2013 is completely different. When the PPP was faced with the nuisance of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), no one had any idea about the PTI’s or the PAT’s position in the political universe of Pakistan. It was the first time that the country was transitioning from one democratic government to another, a situation so rare that it was excitingly impossible to predict any result with any certainty at all. This time, however, the PTI has established itself as a formidable political force with a loyal voter base, even after the avowedly disappointed voters who supported the PTI in the 2013 elections. As for PAT, although they did not perform well in the election, they were still able to manage a fairly large number of people in Islamabad during their first rally. We now know the levels of loyalty and support for PAT and PTI, and also their ability to demonstrate street power. Furthermore, this time both PAT and PTI have decided to join forces, something that the PTI had categorically refused to do pre-elections.
Secondly, the PPP was pretty much at the end of their term when PAT mobilized itself while the Nawaz Administration has barely made it through its first year. Even if the PAT had been able to dislodge the PPP government, a caretaker would have had to take over – something which was going to happen anyway and, in this case, would just have happened earlier than scheduled. The Nawaz league, on the other hand, has waited for its term for 10-odd years and is thus desperate to ensure that it is able to complete its five-year term. This makes a significant difference to the way the two parties perceive the PTI and PAT shenanigans.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, neither the PTI nor the PAT threaten the core vote bank of the PPP i.e. Sindh. By the time these dharnas and revolution marches started happening, the PPP was well aware that it had lost any chance it had of winning Punjab in the 2013 elections, which was the core focus of both PTI and PAT. This means that the PPP really wasn’t so nervous about the outcome of these marches, while the PML-N’s future may well depend on this. Additionally, the fact that PML-N, PTI, and PAT share the same vote bank makes negotiations that much more difficult than it did for the PPP. Comfortable in that knowledge, it is then small wonder that the PPP didn’t bother to respond with anything other than calm.
This is not to defend the PML-N or their fascist, control-freak tendencies. As friend and journalist Zarrar Khuhro (@ZarrarKhuhro) put beautifully in one of his tweets, the PML-N’s greatest talent so far has been to panic and in the process manufacture a political mess where there was none. Given how huge a mandate the PML-N won in the 2013 elections and that it is not in a coalition government, it is amazing to see them so besieged! But, to say that the PPP is somehow better at managing political crises like these or that Zardari is some sort of a genius of a statesman are completely invalid statements. It was their callousness, not some intelligent leadership capability, that made the PPP ignore Qadri’s chants of revolution and Imran’s general belligerence.