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The long wait for breakup

November 17, 2017

IMRAN Khan has joined a long list of experts who have all predicted a breakup of the PML-N. And since he is the likely beneficiary of any exodus from the ruling party, Mr Khan has backed up his assertion with an assurance that a large number of the PML-N members who are about to give up the Sharif patronage are actually in contact with the PTI.

The PML-N split had been imminent for a while now. The breakup was said to be in a matter of days, if not hours, as soon as the court put ‘disqualified prime minister’ before Mian Nawaz Sharif’s name. It is quite remarkable in the history of this country that a party which by all accounts is in the process of being hounded out still manages to retain its numerical presence in politics.

In the event those who had forecast a swift wounding up of the Nawaz Sharif party have been left placing their trust in whatever few and faint signs of a split there have been on the horizon. One recent occasion was provided by Mian Ata Maneka, the suave yet unpredictable PML-N member from Punjab.

Mr Maneka does have a reputation for leading forward blocs. As a PML-Q member of the provincial assembly, he was in the forefront of the move which gave Mian Shahbaz Sharif the required numbers to be able to form a government in Punjab in 2008. His forward group then was a huge help, considering that a PML-Q and PPP combine at the time could, theoretically at least, bid for establishing a government in the province.

One important factor that binds the PML-N for now is the uncertainty about when the general election will be held.

The recognition of the hand played by Mr Maneka as the most prominent member of that PML-Q forward bloc was somewhat subdued. Despite his high-profile presence in the past as a politician willing to talk before the press corps this new Shahbaz ally was not given the importance which many thought was his right.

The Shahbaz government, it appeared, was keen on projecting the alliance with this chunk from the PML-Q as routine business — which was understandable since it was in sync with the desired PML-N image of being a party that was not dependent on anyone else to rule over Punjab. Any extra pampering of the PML-Q rebels would have detracted from that impression.

Many of these rebels were drafted in as PML-N candidates in the general election of 2013, Mr Ata Maneka included. He won and was given a ministry, and the prominence that comes with it in a cabinet led by the ever visible and always in command Mian Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister. For some real effect, Mr Maneka had to wait for this moment recently, which saw him talking about the likelihood of PML-N members crossing over to another Muslim League faction — a faction by the name of PML-Q.

Going by usual old-day logic, the Maneka pragmatism was supposed to open the floodgates and an exodus from the PML-N again would be witnessed within days. And the absence of such a deluge has since spurred various explanations.

On top of them all is obviously the grand theory which celebrates the coming of age of democracy in Pakistan. A diehard PML-N politician would have you believe that the hands that once demolished a party to suit a situation have been weakened by a maturing of democratic institutions — political parties included. For this new achievement, felicitations are due to the PML-N which stands — and stands united against all other parties wishing and calling for its demise.

There are some other explanations, perhaps more practical for the pragmatically inclined cadres within the PML-N, which are keeping the party together in its time of trial. One very obvious reason could be the availability of Mr Shahbaz Sharif as a replacement for Mr Nawaz Sharif. In the eyes of many, politicians as well as lay observers, Mr Shahbaz is a man to bet on, so far as the politics of Punjab is concerned.

He has remained unchallenged by any party. It could well be another equation altogether if and when he is confronted by the accountability machinery in court, but for the moment, a large number of politicians would be willing to stand around him. They will be hoping for Mr Shahbaz eventually winning the approval as the substitute to lead the PML-N.

By contrast a passing of the leadership mantle to someone like Ms Maryam Nawaz — in the event of Mr Shahbaz not being available for some reason — will entail quite a lot of reconstruction. If and when she is pressed into leading the party, she might have to build the organisation afresh.

One important factor that binds the PML-N for now is the uncertainty about when the general election will be held. Once the members sense an election approaching fast there will be greater activity and there will be news of crossovers by the hour. At a time where the PML-N leadership is facing court cases, this will explain why the party is not very eager to come up with a definite schedule for the next election.

Why would the PML-N want to listen to advice for holding an early election when it could lead to a trend where a large number of politicians ditch it for more pragmatic choices? That too at a time when the party’s leader is faced with a court battle for his survival. There is considerable logic in the PML-N wanting to prolong its rule — even a mere impression of it. It cannot be expected to voluntarily give away powers that it has and powers that it desperately needs at this crucial hour. Mr Imran Khan may go on calling for the breakup of the party. The PML-N cadres still have a few intra-party options to get over.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2017