Fasihur Rehman Khan - Don’t be surprised if a political bigwig close to the PML-N top leadership cautiously warns that one National Assembly seat for Imran Khan’s Tahreek-e-Insaf from urban Lahore can start downward slide for the party which has been ruling the city since 1990.

Still facing a dearth of electable and popular candidates from Lahore, Imran Khan has to dent the stronghold in any case. Nawaz Sharif, enjoying scores of electables in his ranks, is mindful of the tsunami factor at close-door meetings. Last year, PML-N tigers considered the Khan factor as non-existent. The events of 2012 have compelled the Sharifs to revisit their strategy.

With over 90 National Assembly seats in his bag in the last elections without much homework and efforts on the ground, PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif was in no mood to pay heed to any harsh ground realities of Pakistani politics. The post-exile period was a new, born-again style politics for Sharif. Inspired, well read, religiously motivated and in no mood to compromise, Sharif went on for a coalition government with Zardari-led PPP because he wanted little space for General (retd) Musharraf who was still clinging to the presidency. But as soon as Sharif and Zardari joined forces to oust Musharraf from power, the all-powerful man had to bow out. But instead of working to achieve the goals outlined in the Charter of Democracy, the short-term gains in sight evaporated the trust between PPP and PML-N leadership. With Sharif toeing somewhat anti-establishment line, Zardari’s survival instincts pulled him towards the pro-establishment forces immediately after the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto. Ever since, he has been a great survivalist. Starting from breakup with PML-N at the Centre to the long march for the judges’ restoration, Kerry Lugar Bill controversy, the NRO issue, tussles with the Supreme Court, Memogate scandal, Salala or Malala – this man has managed all through short-term, shrewd political moves. Perhaps it was this realisation that compelled Sharif to rethink and revisit his political strategy, lately. It all started in mid 2012. Likeminded and former Musharraf cronies were suddenly welcome to the League fold. For mainstream political parties ‘electables’ bring in many advantages. Be it local clergy, landlords, traders and industrialists, they bring in caste, area, ethnic votes, which is an easy, readymade, winnable and time-tested formula for our political parties.

Riding the tides of tsunami this year, PTI Chief Imran Khan was finally convinced by his proponents in the establishment to bring these electables to his party’s fold. And he did it willingly. Khan and PTI comrades still struggle to come up with an honest logic to justify the act as many of his diehard and emotional followers stood disillusioned. Khan recently went on with the lengthy party election process to pacify the workers. But only an election triumph can vindicate his stance.

On the other hand, blamed for all the ills of governance of the last four and a half years, Zardari didn’t pay heed to the advice to bring in electable bigwigs during the recent Sahiwal National Assembly polls, and the decision backfired. Critics within the PPP and outside came up with daggers drawn against the newly appointed Punjab President Manzoor Wattoo who was given the Punjab responsibility two months back much to the annoyance of PML-Q top leaders, Chaudhrys of Gujrat. But insiders say Wattoo was helpless. The PPP candidate went to the presidency under the patronage of Faryal Talpur, sister of President Zardari whose words are taken as final in the PPP echelons of power these days. Reportedly, the candidate shed tears before Zardari as he narrated his political struggle for the party and hence secured the ticket. And PPP humbled badly in the same election. A powerful electable would have done wonders. The workers-friendly experiment failed.

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It doesn’t have to take a top banker and a spy agency’s cooperation, like in the 90s, to do politics through money. Times have changed. Rich businessmen, influential traders, mighty landlords are these days employing all their connections and circles to visit Jati Umra Lahore, Bilawal House Islamabad, and the scenic Bani Gala farmhouse of Imran Khan. Not all of them are vying for election tickets. Many are investing in near future ventures, PR exercise etc. Some are even capable of penetrating all the mighty political houses, simultaneously; Rs 2.5 million for a half an hour meeting and photo opportunity with the top party leader. But all this is unaccounted for. No cheque, no receipt, just a game of trust based on words of mouth. A would-be candidate had to pay from his nose recently as he visited one such mighty political house. He had promised Rs 5 million straightaway, despite being told he won’t get the party ticket for the upcoming elections. A second-tier party leader from South Punjab was the fixer. Bent on meeting the mighty leader, come what may, the meeting went ahead as scheduled and ended with smiles as camera flashes captured the scene. The money bag was handed over to the personal secretary of the political bigwig, and the guests departed happily. With the guests’ car just at the gates, the surprising angry call came within minutes. The caller was no else but the secretary who told the intermediary in a furious tone that Rs 1 million were short. The amount was handed over, later.

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It wasn’t a slip of tongue. And that’s why it wasn’t music to the ears of the top general. Eyes and ears of the military establishment couldn’t miss this conversation between a political bigwig and some European ambassador. Bluntly, the political bigwig didn’t mince words in telling the ambassador that with power in his hands after the general elections, he won’t be able to coexist with the top commander. The mistrust between the elder Sharif and the top general, some believe, dates back to the NRO days, and is the basis of a bit overestimated PPP wish-cum-claim that they might return to power. Still eleven and a half months left in the retirement, and the power corridors of the capital are abuzz that military command might have a five-star general controlling all the forces – just like the American model. The elevation of the top general to the said post will give him another three years. To add impetus and send a good will message to the barracks, a 50 per cent raise in salaries of the armed forces can also be on the cards soon. If this scheme works, it will have impacts on the near future political arrangement of the country, and Nawaz Sharif is mindful of it. Many in his close circles believe he has got the required clearance to clinch the post of the chief executive of the country for the third time. Others still argue that no such clean chit has been handed over and performance in the elections will be the only yardstick. A weak government will only benefit the mighty military establishment. With PML Likeminded, Jamaat-e-Islami and Sindhi nationalists on his right side, PML-N might come close to a simple majority. Short of it, the post-election coalition politics will be the only option left. In Sindh, Sharif will need Altaf Bhai, Balochistan will be wide open politically as it always does, so will be KPK minus Imran Khan factor. In case Khan’s charisma works in Peshawar valley, the coalition game will be messier. Oh, don’t forget Difa-e-Pakistan people. They can be handy too. In his quest to secure the right wing votes, the PML-N would also like to co-opt with it. But one thing still makes Sharif curious when he inquires from colleagues time and again whether the top spy agency is behind the making of this hard-line political outfit. Has any anyone informed him yet?