Not for a second have I dared to imagine that Prime Minister Imran Khan would agree to ‘soften’ accountability-covering laws, if the opposition promised to expedite the passage of a different set of laws, Pakistan urgently needs to get approved by its parliament for getting out of the ‘grey list’ of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

I feel deeply grateful to Shah Mehmud Qureshi, the Foreign Minister, for publicly affirming my hunch by delivering a passionate speech during the national assembly sitting of Tuesday. Through the same, he finally conveyed the firm passage that fighting corruption remained the ‘core agenda’ of Imran Khan’s politics. After reaching the Prime Minister’s Office after 22-year-long struggle, he is not willing to “compromise on this issue,’ just for the sake of remaining in power.

To begin with, Shah Mehmud Qureshi rather surprised many by entering the house with his usual huff, precisely at a time when a bi-partisan committee of parliamentarians, from both houses of parliament, was scheduled to build ‘consensus’ for the smooth and speedy passage of more than a score of momentouslaws. Most of these laws are aimed to ensure the world that Pakistan has introduced and enforced laws, which vigilantly watch over the acts of money laundering and sternly address the menace of terrorism. Tuesday was a day reserved for private initiatives in legislation anyway and proceedings in the house were forcing you to yawn.

Shah Mehmud Qureshi’s unexpected entry promised drama and we surely witnessed a heavy load of it. The Foreign Minister hates brevity; he loves building up things to a sensational complex and always starts his speeches with deceptive but polite preludes.

He went on and on to drum the point that being the eternal enemy of Pakistan, India had been working overtime to push us to FATF’s black list. If it succeeds in achieving the target, Pakistan will certainly experience unbearable shocks to its already fragile economy. To prevent the catastrophe and frustrate the enemy, our parliament must rush to pass a set of laws. FATF has been anxiously waiting for them and the next two months were extremely crucial in the given context.

Instead of appreciating Pakistan’s quandary while keeping the “supreme national interest” in mind, Shah Mehmud Qureshi declared with a hurt heart, the opposition continued to play

 hard to get. In return to their cooperation for the passage of FATF-satisfying laws, top ranking representatives of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) were demanding “simultaneous softening of laws,” which empower the National Accountability (NAB) to effectively fight against corruption.

In spite of being a very experienced politician, representing an elitist family of Multan, Shah Mehmud Qureshi feigned being shocked with audacious behavior of the opposition. Without being direct, he subtly attempted to build the narrative that instead of considering Pakistan’s obligations before the international community with patriotic zeal, the PML-N and the PPP remained selfishly hooked to protect their “vested interests.” They want the Imran government to convert NAB into a toothless outfit.

Qureshi did concede that some powers of NAB perhaps deserve a serious review. But the law empowering the said body had been introduced way back in late 1999. Two decades have passed since then. Meantime, from 2008 to 2018, the PML-N and the PPP also took turns in the government, but refrained from softening these powers.

Imran Khan and his government had nothing to do with the NAB-related law; the current Chairman of this body had also been appointed by consensus, reached between the PML-N and the PPP. Yet, the PTI was willing to consider the opposition’s grievances against NAB for course correction. But doing so, it can’t forget its vow to eradicate corruption and Prime Minister Imran Khan is simply not willing to bend on this issue, rain or shine.

Shah Mehmud Qureshi consumed most of his time to elaborate “proposals,” which he claimed were jointly presented to the government in writing. Savagely explaining them, clause-by-clause, he impressively succeeded in spreading the feeling as if in the name of “reforming NAB,” the opposition was rather seeking the license to continue with ruthless corruption.

The opposition heard him in absolute silence. But they proved too naïve while imagining that some of their representatives might be asked to respond to his speech. The Chair stole the opportunity from them by suddenly adjourning the house until Wednesday, immediately after Qureshi’s speech. He walked out of the house like a proud victor, while the opposition looked visibly baffled and sulking.

The cynic in me feels forced to insist that the opposition had definitely asked for it. The PML-N and the PPP are crowded with highly experienced politicians and feel too good and proud about it. In spite of dealing with the Imran government for the past two years, however, they are yet not able to correctly read its playbook.

Both the opposition parties have developed the habit of not taking Imran Khan, seriously. They strongly feel that the ‘real source’ of power is ‘somewhere else.’ Deep down from their hearts, most PML-N parliamentarians also believe that their president, Shahbaz Sharif, and messengers trusted by him savor enviable command over the skills of “building bridges” to ‘real source’ of power in this country.

Wishfully trusting the presumed ‘skills,’ they had begun to gleefully expect ‘in house change’ in the last quarter of 2019. It did not materialize, but they refused to learn any lessons. For the past two months, they rather began to hope for ‘minus one’ for another time.They took it for granted that the urgent need for FATF-pleasing laws would create a huge space for their returning to power games with a bang. The imagined game might start when the Imran government would appear as if  “compelled to” soften the NAB-connected laws as a ‘swap’ to their cooperation for the speedy passage of FATF-related laws.

For a different set of reasons, the PPP also kept imagining the similar scenarios. During the past two weeks, I had off-the-record meetings with more than a score of representatives from both the main opposition parties. With polite demeanor, I kept listening to their wishful scenarios without putting any questions. Their naivety was perhaps forgivable for the Imran government had literally pushed their parties to a tight corner. One avoided injecting more despondency among their hearts.

Any student of power games can instinctively fathom, however, that “leaders” in a highly polarized polity eventually turn into helpless hostages to their own narratives. And ‘populists’ like Imran Khan remain hooked to pleasing their ‘base.’ Shah Mehmud Qureshi was absolutely right to remind the opposition Tuesday that Imran Khan’s core constituency would feel betrayed, if he appeared “compromising on corruption” by softening the NAB-related laws.

Except his vigorous commitment to the cause of fighting a relentless war on corruption, Imran Khan has no other narrative to divert the attention of his ‘base,’ anyway. He would rather love to appear as if “sacrificing the government by not bending on the issue of corruption”. That’s how populists anywhere in the world set and play their game.

Like it or not, Prime Minister Imran Khan is sticking to his game. The opposition, on the contrary, could yet not set a doable-looking game to counter him. Discreet meetings with the real or imagined “ultimate sources” of power in this country can’t deliver in the given context.