LONDON has long been a centre of activity for Pakistani politicians. It is often used as a venue for secret negotiations and deals that influence the course of Pakistani politics. The British capital is also the preferred destination for Pakistani politicians fleeing the country to avoid persecution.
Many political leaders have made the city their second abode and often summon the entire top party leadership for important consultations. Such activities invariably stoke all kinds of conspiracy theories. The term ‘the London plan’ has become part of the Pakistani political lexicon.
Predictably, the latest huddle of the top PML-N leaders in the city has set in motion the rumour mill once again. Many media persons described it as the launch of a new ‘London plan’. Indeed, the meeting assumed much greater significance in the backdrop of the bailable arrest warrant being issued for Nawaz Sharif and his sons for failing to appear before the accountability court and the brewing revolt within the party ranks.
Despite the show of solidarity with Nawaz Sharif at the London huddle, all is not well within the party.
It is not for the first time that Sharif summoned to London the prime minister and several members of the cabinet for deliberations. But the issue this time was much more serious. The meeting was called to chart the future course of the ruling party and to demonstrate solidarity with the ousted prime minister.
Under the so-called London plan, Sharif will return to the country to face trial thus ending the ambivalence generated by his skipping the previous hearing. Most significant, however, is the decision to shun the policy of confrontation with other institutions and, instead, focus on the coming elections. It seems the party has also given a green signal to Shahbaz Sharif to work on reconciliation with the generals. That may be seen as a victory, at least for now, for those advocating moderation.
Whatever doubt there was about Nawaz Sharif’s staying as president of the party has apparently been removed. The party’s campaign in the coming elections will revolve around him. That certainly has strengthened Sharif’s position as party supremo. According to some reports, the party has decided that the younger Sharif would be prime minister if the party returns to power in the elections.
It may help calm down the dissidents who are demanding that the younger Sharif brother be installed at the top. The meeting has categorically rejected what they called a ‘minus-Nawaz Sharif’ formula. But, does any such formula exist? That simply means that the party has not yet reconciled to the possibility of Nawaz Sharif being convicted by the accountability court.
It is apparent that the PML-N intends to go into the general elections in Nawaz Sharif’s name notwithstanding the outcome of the trial. Indeed, there is no other option for the beleaguered party that is fighting back to keep its political hold especially in battleground Punjab.
Undoubtedly, Nawaz Sharif remains the vote puller and the party would like to use him. But the situation could dramatically change in the next few months following the court ruling in the corruption cases against the Sharif family. Until then, the ousted prime minister would effectively be controlling the Abbasi government and influencing key policy decisions.
That may create its own problems and could affect relations between the Abbasi administration and state institutions, especially the security establishment. It may add to the state of uncertainty. In the larger interest of the party, and for the democratic process to continue, it is imperative that the present PML-N government be allowed complete freedom to run the administration.
In an attempt to defuse the intra-family and intra-party conflict, the meeting has reportedly barred Maryam Nawaz from issuing policy statements. Her growing political profile and controversial statements have certainly been a major cause for the widening gulf within the family and have also antagonised some senior members of the party.
Maryam’s recent interview with The New York Times, in which she said that the family had long decided that she be given a leadership role has irked her detractors. This sense of entitlement indicates her ambition that makes senior party leaders and her uncle uncomfortable.
Notwithstanding the criticism, she has built her own support base among the younger lot who see her as more dynamic and charismatic than anyone else in the party. For the past few weeks, Maryam has been on the mass contact trail raising her political profile. Her focus on her family constituency in Lahore is indicative of her plan to be a candidate from this seat in the next elections.
Her aggressive campaign may have added to the party’s problems, but it has also helped mobilise the party workers. The reported restriction on her not to speak on party policy matters may not work given her determination to assert herself. But her ambition may not be fulfilled as there is the possibility of her being convicted by the accountability court.
Despite the show of unity and solidarity with the ousted prime minister at the London meeting, all is not well within the party. Former interior minister Nisar Ali Khan’s latest statement lamenting that the PML-N has been turned into a party to serve the interests of its leader is a direct attack on Nawaz Sharif.
His warning that Pakistan is facing a crisis even worse than in 1970, when the country lost its eastern wing, is quite meaningful. He has directly blamed the party leadership for the tension with the military, indicating that moves for reconciliation may not work in the existing atmosphere of distrust. The former interior minister may not be a popular figure in the party, but certainly enjoys close ties with the military establishment.
Sharif’s return may change the political atmosphere in the country. The focus will once again be shifted to the accountability court. That may raise the political temperature. That will test the patience of the ousted prime minister and his daughter as the judicial noose tightens around them. It remains to be seen how the London plan works.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2017