‘Walking into a trap with hardly any exit’

Sadiq Sanjrani is an amazing cool cat. During extremely fluid and chaotic months of early 2018, he got himself elected to the upper house of our parliament from Balochistan and eventually managed being elected as its Chairman by cultivating the support of both Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari.

Since then, he had been presiding over the proceedings of a house, presumably crowded with highly experienced parliamentarians who mostly felt unhappy with his conduct. With friends-to-all kind of smiles and humility, though, he kept them calm and even ‘made history’ by defeating a vote of no confidence, pushed against him in 2020.

Despite having the clear and absolute majority, the then opposition parties scandalously failed to vote him out. Many of its Senators had rather voted in his favor while stamping the ballot in secrecy.

Yet presiding over Friday’s sitting of the Senate, the same Sanjrani felt forced to abandon his cool. To control the ceaseless bedlam and prevent scuffles among the enraged senators from both sides, he often shouted with full force of his lungs. In the end, he also threatened to get two compulsively rowdy senators, Faisal Javed of the PTI and Bheramund Tungi, disqualified from sitting in the house, “while personally pursuing the case against you before the Election Commission.”

The government, for sure, had ignited the bedlam in the Senate Friday by announcing another massive increase in the prices of petroleum products late Thursday night. Too close to the presentation of the annual budget, Miftah Ismail, the finance minister, announced another hike within two weeks.

Apparently, the government was compelled to announce anxiously awaited increases to please the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The ultimate regulator of the global economy had refused to bail out Pakistan, if it didn’t announce the desired increase. Still, an overwhelming majority never imagined that they would suddenly be asked to pay 60 Pak rupees more for a liter of petrol. The massive increase had indeed stunned and shocked the millions, already feeling being hopelessly trapped in low and middle-income groups.

The Senators, representing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan, employed a forceful strategy to reflect the rage boiling in millions of hearts since Thursday night. They entered the house with placards condemning “the imported government.” After reaching their benches, they kept subverting the usual business relentlessly with fierce slogan chanting.

Speaking for them, Dr. Wasim Shahzad, the opposition leader in the Senate, once again reiterated the PTI’s narrative against the current government. Doing this, he frequently asserted that Imran Khan had firmly refused to slavishly dance to the tunes of the IMF. He had rather frozen the prices of petroleum products and went for a visit to Russia to seek regular and cheaper supply of the oil for Pakistan.

“Foreigners (read the Americans)”, Dr. Shahzad proudly claimed, “felt extremely uncomfortable with Imran Khan’s search for cheaper alternatives” and eventually designed the “conspiracy” to remove him from the Prime Minister’s Office. After removing him through a vote of no confidence, Washington also succeeded to “implant its stooges” to run a government the PTI derides as “imported.”

Azam Tarrar, the law minister, failed to articulate a forceful counter-narrative. Visibly feeling overwhelmed, he merely kept repeating the government’s claim that in effect it was the previous government, led by Imran Khan, which had promised to increase the prices of petroleum products to seek relief from the IMF. The new government had simply “executed” the pledge made by the previous one.

Shaukat Tarin, the former finance minister, contemptuously refuted this claim. He felt too proud in spinning the story that guided by his brave prime minister he continued resisting the IMF pressure for around six months. He strongly believed that Pakistan still had the means and resources to sustain resistance to IMF’s dictates.

The story told by Shaukat Tarin was surely not fact-based. Yet a huge number of Pakistanis would still prefer to believe in it. He could easily get away with audacious boasting, primarily for the fact that the eleven-party government, led by Shehbaz Sharif, miserably failed to spin a credible story to refute him. Foolishly disregarding the need for strategic communication in this age of rage-fuelling media, the government rather looks arrogantly heartless by “slavishly succumbing” to the real or alleged IMF pressure.

Lest you forget, Imran Khan doesn’t hold the political opponents solely responsible for his fall. Through a smart mixing of the explicit and implicit messages, he also keeps blaming the military elite for allegedly not standing by him for defeating the “regime change conspiracy”. He also keeps insisting that foreign conspirators have not moved, only to topple the government he was leading. The ultimate end game is to push Pakistan to bankruptcy and then dictate its terms to a strategically weakened country with no cards to play.

Shaukat Tarin made a deeply cunning attempt to furnish credence to Imran Khan’s claims. He “revealed” with a hurt heart that somewhere in early March this year, he had gone to meet a very “IMPORTANT” person to tell him that Pakistan’s economy was doing fine under the previous government. Pakistan would certainly start heading to bankruptcy, if its “continuity” were disrupted.

One doesn’t need to name the “IMPORTANT” person Tarin had referred to. But his speech in the Senate surely amplified Imran Khan’s claim that instead of protecting him from a “foreign conspiracy” the lead players of our national security outfits preferred to act “neutral.” In short, Imran Khan and his diehard loyalists are holding the “IMPORTANT” persons equally responsible for the current misery of our shirtless millions. And the mass of our inflation-hit people has increasingly begun to believe in the narrative spun by the PTI.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his party were once associated with speedy and stunning developments on multiple economic fronts. But after replacing Imran Khan in early April, they now look like harbingers of bad and gloomy news. The “new look” certainly had the strong potential of eroding the “vote bank,” Nawaz Sharif had diligently been cultivating and expanding since switching to politics in the early 1980s. And his diehard loyalists look visibly baffled these days.

But Senator Mushtaq Ahmad of the Jamaat-e-Islami was perfectly right in putting the question as to why Shehbaz Sharif and his loyalists opted to stay put in the government after removing Imran Khan. Being very experienced politicians, they must have clearly seen the accumulating mess and chaos related to economic and fiscal management. Pakistan might have reached a stage, where difficult but unpopular decisions could no longer be postponed. But before rushing to them, Shehbaz Sharif and his loyalists should have sought a fresh mandate by calling early elections.

If you seriously consider the extremely valid question, sincerely put by Senator Mushtaq Ahmad, Shehbaz Sharif and his loyalists will surely appear to have walked into a trap with hardly any exit.

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