I have developed a distant liking for what PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif has been standing for ever since his return from exile in 2007. In fact, I wonder, how can any democrat not agree with Sharif’s concerns regarding the military’s traditional interference in politics; or that Pakistan needs to not only strike serious peaceful postures with its neighbours, especially India, but we should also be willing to first concede our own follies before pointing fingers at outside forces for our ills.
Such are the thoughts that have made Sharif an ironic case of repulsion for the military establishment. It is ironic because this is the same man who, from 1985 till 1997, was considered the establishment’s most trusted and propped-up horse – until his second government was toppled in a military coup in 1999. Gone are the days when he was ever-willing to play the role of the the establishment’s civilian hit man, armed to keep ‘traitors’ like the PPP at bay and make sure that Punjab remains a bastion of establishmentarian maneuvers.
Sharif has been talking lately of his distaste for military regimes and interference, and his desire to construct strong economic ties with India, however, it does not mean that this is also his party’s stance. Just like any mainstream party anywhere in the world, the PML-N too has developed internal wings holding different opinions on various issues. For example, though the British Labour Party or the American Democratic Party are left-leaning, they have leftist, centrist and rightist tendencies within their folds.
The same is the case with the left-leaning PPP. Ever since its inception it too has had these three wings working within the party’s larger ideological framework. For example, just like the American Republican Party, the PML-N too has evolved into a democratic conservative outfit with a dedicated right-wing and (comparatively speaking) a more progressive wing. So if one keeps Sharif’s concerns in mind, it won’t be bizarre to suggest that it is this once hearty chum of the establishment who is now representing the progressive wing of the PML-N.
But it is still to be seen how much clout Nawaz and his band of men in the PML-N have compared to the loud wallop and numbers enjoyed by the party’s right-wing (Shahbaz Sharif, Saad Rafique, Ahsan Iqbal, etc.). Though it is normal for any big political party to entertain within itself various degrees of discourse of its central ideology, it is now becoming clear that this phenomenon has created a flux in the PML-N.
At the party's recent rally in Faisalabad, one could clearly see not all PML-N men were on the same page. PML-N’s right-wing wants its chief and his supporters within the party to tone down their anti-establishment rhetoric and concentrate more on bringing down the Zardari regime through civil disobedience. Sharif’s group however is comparatively reluctant because it feels that the fall of an elected government through such a movement may pave the way for direct military intervention and the complete sidelining of the PML-N.
Then there’s the Imran Khan factor. Sharif’s group insists that Khan is being propped up by the establishment (to dent the PML-N vote bank) but at the same time it is still unsure how exactly to tackle the Khan card; whereas the right-wing of PML-N believes that Khan can be trumped only by attracting the anti-Zardari vote through street agitation.
But if Khan’s PTI is a blob of rhetorical contradictions in which its leader jumps from being a macho anti-drone/ US/ corruption crusader to becoming a rather lily-livered backfoot punter when it comes to airing views about religious extremism, PML-N too is not sounding all that coherent. Whereas parties like the PPP have managed to rein in its diverse internal wings on a single platform on most issues, PML-N seems to have got into an awkward tangle.
For instance, during the Faisalabad rally when Chaudhry Nisar Ali spoke about downing a ‘pharaoh’, one wasn’t sure whether he was talking about downing Zardari, Imran or the ISI. The party’s right-wing likes to downplay the party’s near-panic status in the sudden wake of Khan’s arrival as a third force in Punjab. But dented by the economic and political failures of the PML-N Punjab government (mirroring the sloppiness of the PPP regime at the centre), the party just can’t help but end up exhibiting the fright it is trying to conceal.
That’s why PML-N’s Faisalabad rally seemed more like a plea than a boast. It was a plea to its electorate to stay with the PML-N because Khan’s rise was artificial and supposedly many of the economic failings of PML-N's government in Punjab are due to the ‘corruption’ of the federal government. This is making PML-N sound desperate. The only person that seems to be in the clear in this regard is Nawaz Sharif who is willing to seize a single line of action and thought, even willing to hold his horses till the next elections (late 2012/ early 2013).
But his influence within the party is being overridden by the right-wing hawks who are bent on finding a more boisterous way in the streets to push an elected government out of office. Clearly, these hawks, overtly stung by mischievous media taunts, Imran’s entry into the mainstream and the economic failure of the party’s government in Punjab, have become desperate and incoherent about what they stand for.
The only way I see PML-N regaining any lost ground in Punjab is by formulating a more coherent strategy, squarely revolving around Nawaz’s more patient and consistent disposition, focusing more on the long-term ‘enemy’ (the establishment’s maneuvering), rather than on a short-term goal of toppling an elected government.