Politics, lies and deceit

IT appears to be a systemic collapse of the state institutions as never before.

A series of audio leaks involving the conversations of the country’s top political offices have exposed the lies and deceit that are increasingly coming to characterise our national politics. The timing of these leaks is equally sinister. Whodunit? It may not be too hard to guess the prime mover.

The taping at the Prime Minister’s Office and the leaks raise larger questions about security issues.

Described as ‘Cablegate’, it is symptomatic of a state in crisis. It is unravelling the entire system, plunging the country into a state of anarchy. What has transpired in the leaked audiotapes gives a new twist to the farce being played out on the political stage. It’s all about self-serving political interests and ordinary people are being used as pawns in the ongoing sordid game of thrones.

What has come out so far is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s wait for more bombshells. The game is on.

Interestingly, no one has denied the veracity of the conversations on the leaked audiotapes, which involve both the current and former prime minister. Both the PML-N and PTI are now trying to weaponise the leaks, depending on the content of the conversations, against each other in their ongoing power struggle.

The leaks were of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s conversations with his cabinet members followed by an uncle-niece discussion on matters of policy. Seemingly innocuous, these leaks, however, provide some insight into the power dynamics that perpetuate the Sharif family’s political stranglehold.

What has come out so far is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s wait for more bombshells.

But more sensational are the leaked audiotapes of the purported conversation between former prime minister Imran Khan and his principal secretary, as well as Khan’s discussions with his ministers on the cipher issue that the PTI chief presented as evidence of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ aimed at ousting him from office. Indeed, the leaked conversations reinforce the contention that the cipher sent by Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington was manipulated and a conspiracy theory was invented to mobilise public support.

It shows how national interests are sacrificed at the altar of power games. Unfortunately, this concoction of conspiracy theories and ultra-nationalist narratives has worked well for the former prime minister who has been galvanising his supporters, notwithstanding the damage that this reckless and irresponsible stance has done to the country.

Not surprisingly, the government is now using the cipher scandal to hit back at the former prime minister. The federal cabinet recently ordered an inquiry into the audio leaks, and according to media reports, the government is also contemplating legal action against Khan in the case of the cipher, which it says has gone ‘missing’ from the PM’s Office.

PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz has even called for raiding Imran Khan’s Banigala residence to recover the ‘missing’ copy of the diplomatic cipher and has blasted her own party’s government for not arresting the PTI chairman.

Any such move will have serious repercussions and ignite a combustible political situation. A weak and unwieldy coalition government, with its limited authority, can hardly afford such a political misadventure.

In fact, the worsening power struggle within the PML-N has turned Cablegate into a sideshow. Two recent developments — the return of Ishaq Dar and the acquittal of Maryam Nawaz in the Avenfield case by the Islamabad High Court — have completely changed the power dynamics within the party and the government. Maryam’s acquittal has also ended her disqualification from holding public office, thus allowing her to stand in the next elections. This would certainly shift the balance of power within the Sharif family.

Dar’s appointment to a key cabinet post has virtually reduced the position of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to just a figurehead, with economic policies now firmly in the hands of the returnee ‘economic czar’. With the full blessing of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the new finance minister is reversing the economic and financial policies pursued by the PDM government for the past six months.

Dar last week reduced the prices of all petroleum products for the next fortnight by around five per cent — essentially, reversing a policy of raising prices monthly through added levies to ensure enhanced revenues as agreed upon with the IMF. He justified his action, saying he could not overburden the people who were struggling to cope with the catastrophic floods.

Whether or not this populist move helps the ruling party regain some lost political capital, it may jeopardise the IMF deal and worsen the financial crisis. The IMF representative had made it clear that the policy commitments made by the Pakistani authorities could not be changed. A breach of agreement could further complicate Pakistan’s financial predicament.

Predictably, the change of guard at the finance ministry and reversal of the economic policy have intensified the conflict within party ranks. The tough decisions taken by the former finance minister, that had the approval of the prime minister and the cabinet, had helped the country avoid default. But Dar’s action seems arbitrary and, as Miftah Ismail described it, “reckless”.

That raises the question: whose policy is it? The senior Sharif’s, sitting in London, or the younger Sharif’s, officiating as chief executive of the country? Dar, who was seen as de facto deputy prime minister in the previous PML-N government, now seems to have become de facto prime minister accountable only to the elder Sharif in London. His press conference last week with Maryam Nawaz by his side chastising her uncle’s government leaves nothing to the imagination.

A bitter Miftah Ismail rightly described Pakistan as a country controlled by “the 1pc elite”. It’s all about family interests and power. There is no thinking about the long-term interest of the country. It is not just about the lies and deceit exposed by Cablegate but also ugly power politics. It is an increasingly untenable situation with the country in the midst of multiple crises.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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