In other places, people discuss the weather. In Islamabad, they talk of the latest political crisis. The only difference this time round is that the present crisis persists since January and there are few signs that it will be resolved any time soon. Born of the conflicting ambitions of President Ghulam lshaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, this conflict has been conducted virtually in public. There is no secret about what triggered off the crisis — the appointment of General Waheed as army chief. Nor is there any mystery about what the protagonists want: each other's corpses, preferably without even the formality of a decent burial.
The passions swirling in either camp are writ large on the faces of their supporters. Even if they weren't, the president at least is making no secret of his intense dislike for his partner in the dyarchy (the triarchy if one includes the army) which has been in place in Islamabad since the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto's government.
The president receives a stream of visitors every day. Some merely listen to him as he goes into vivid detail about the treachery and ingratitude of the Sharif brothers. Others, with an eye on their own chances if a different set-up emerges in Islamabad, whisper conspiratorial suggestions into his all too willing ears.
The result is an atmosphere of intrigue and foreboding in Islamabad with ambassadors scarcely able to contain their amusement as they remark meaningfully upon the interesting times through which the country is passing. The Nawaz Sharif camp is putting up a show of defiance. The mere fact that the prime minister has taken on the president in the face of danger is in itself an act of defiance especially on the part of someone whom his enemies have always derided as a product and a pliant tool of the "establishment". But behind this outward show of bravado, traces of anxiety have begun to show.
Faced with this disadvantage, there is nothing the prime minister can do except to hold on to his strength, trust to his luck and hope for the best.
MNAs, at least, are a nervous lot, especially those from the ruling party who have not particularly benefited from the present government. They wonder what they have done to deserve being trampled in the grass in this battle of elephants. The received wisdom is that this state of affairs cannot persist for long. Something is bound to happen, but exactly what that something might be is not yet evident.
The president has two clear options: he could dissolve the assemblies, or at least the National Assembly, and appoint a caretaker prime minister of his choice, thus leaving Nawaz Sharif to fend for himself in the wilderness without the props he has been used to in his rise to the top. Or the president, after making sure that his surrogates have made sufficient inroads into the prime minister's camp, could ask Nawaz Sharif to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly.
The prevailing view in the capital is that lshaq, having already incurred the odium of dismissing a National Assembly once, would not risk the same again without the ground being prepared in his favour beforehand. This could be done if after the resignations of Hamid Nasir Chattha, Anwar Saifullah (one of the president's sons-in-law) and Asad Junejo, more federal ministers follow their example. Rumour (there being a great deal of it in Islamabad nowadays) has it that Pakistan's permanent-politician-in-waiting, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, is working on a list of MNAs whom he could persuade to resign from the National Assembly. If this were to happen, it would be the cue lshaq has been waiting for to swing the battle axe of the eighth amendment at the tottering gates of the Nawaz Sharif government.
Jatoi, with his polite almost unctuous manner, has a line to every politician. But he is not famous for his industry. If he alone can persuade a number of MNAs to resign from the National Assembly, then any miracle is possible in this country.
The PPP resignations are another matter. If under instructions from their ring mistress, the 40-odd MNAs belonging to the PPP quit the National Assembly, lshaq Khan could then do as he pleases. But Benazir has yet to show her hand. The present volcanic rift in the government has been a godsend to her.
Only a short while ago she was getting the rough end of the stick. Now both the president and the prime minister, as they seek to augment their strength in the assemblies, are trying assiduously to woo her. Like a coy mistress, Benazir is not saying yes to anyone as yet.
Nawaz Sharif tried to meet her in London but could only get as far as her father-in-law, Hakim Ali Zardari (who being the sharp-eyed player that he is must be contemplating the latest turn of events with a sardonic smile on his lips). But the PPP cannot afford to remain in this mistress-mode forever. To all intents and purposes lftikhar Gilani, who was strongly in favour of mending fences with Nawaz Sharif, has been humbled (even chastised according to some of his gleeful colleagues), the dominant thinking in the PPP being that while nothing but evil can come from supporting Nawaz Sharif, a lot of good might come from supporting the president. Even so, the PPP has yet to become active in stoking the embers of this conflict. If the party wastes any more time, it might miss the present favourable tide altogether.
For the president, to engineer more defections from within Nawaz Sharif's camp and then ask the PM to prove his strength in the National Assembly is an option that is greatly exercising the minds of the discontented lot gathered around his banner. But this option can only work if there is a run on Nawaz Sharif's parliamentary bank, thus draining him of vital support. It is true that many MNAs and other politicos are turning fence-sitting into a virtuous art. Still, Nawaz Sharif has a solid body of support in the National Assembly which it would be foolish on the part of his opponents to underestimate.
The important factor, however, is that the trump card in this game remains with the president. He has the constitutional authority both to dissolve the National Assembly and to force the prime minister to seek a fresh vote of confidence. Faced with this disadvantage, there is nothing the prime minister can do except to hold on to his strength, trust to his luck and hope for the best.
This article was originally published in the Herald's April 1993 issue under the headline 'Waiting for the storm'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.