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In spite of the narrative

Updated May 25, 2018

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THE question has by and large been ignored: is PML-N’s current appeal among the people in Punjab because of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s current anti-establishment narrative or in spite of it? There is some evidence that the people are able to express their support for PML-N’s supreme leader without giving up their old love for those who were responsible for propping up Mian Sahib in the province’s, and later the country’s, politics all those years back.

Mian Sahib now wants to drum up support as an ideological politician out to cut his old masters in the establishment down to size. He had in recent times intensified his campaign, leading some of us to believe that he was more concerned about the personal fight, over and above any desire to salvage the situation in favour of his party, which is now led by, in his own right, a very well-entrenched Shahbaz Sharif.

It will be appropriate to make two important points here. One, Punjab’s love affair with the Sharifs may be running today as a parallel to the province’s old and trusted relationship with the establishment, through those who are elected to the assemblies from here. Two, it has very frequently been said that it is primarily the Nawaz vote bank in Punjab, and that despite his fame as an efficient administrator and development supervisor, Shahbaz does not quite command similar respect from the voters and those they elect directly. This notion can hardly stand the most rudimentary of tests in the people’s laboratory.

This is how it goes. Shahbaz has repeatedly got power in Punjab on the back of his elder brother’s success in general elections. On the other hand, Nawaz finds it easier to take his case to the people in the province on the basis of the heroics people largely believe Shahbaz has been able to perform. This makes it rather difficult to separate the two. It would be a little premature — and should we say a wee bit unfair as well — if an analyst was to preemptively penalise Shahbaz for going for a public endorsement of his abilities and work directly instead of relying wholly or chiefly on the services of Nawaz to run the campaign for him.

Shahbaz can succeed since it is first and foremost his work that draws people to the rallies to listen to Nawaz’s narrative.

The two brothers have done it so well in tandem. Shahbaz has quite a lot of his own to flaunt and may persist with doing it for as long as he is allowed to, even if at some stage Nawaz is not too effective to do the promotion for the company. It would be rather harsh to predict that the people will not like to hear and respond to Shahbaz coming up with tales of his exploits and would make their vote for the PML-N conditional on the presence in the field of Mian Nawaz Sharif.

Maybe Mian Sahib would not want to be reminded of it at this charged moment in his political career, but a fact check at this moment will be handy. It is true that Mian Sahib has been commanding large gatherings during his ‘mujhay kyun nikala’ or ‘why was I ousted?’ jalsas. But what was the rallying cry here? Has it really been his call for a fight against the powers who, he says, threw him out? Or is it that the people gather to greet Mian Sahib out of respect for the work that they believe his governments have done over time?

It is likely that the people are turning up in large numbers to hail the development model that Mian Sahib and his younger brother Shahbaz have come to symbolise together. Whereas Mian Sahib may attempt to portray the attendance at the jalsa as a vindication of his narrative, the crowd gathered in front of him may be under no compulsion to give approval to the narrative he has been desperately trying to sell.

The PML-N is no revolutionary outfit. The party consists of veteran politicians who know how it is and what it takes to be around. Shahbaz Sharif is also — it seems quite proudly — aware of the value of the brand that he has been jointly marketing under the Sharif company’s banner. He understands that, notwithstanding the revolt taking shape inside his elder brother’s mind, his own strategy has a better chance of succeeding as realism prevails over all other isms in Pakistani power politics. He will go on asking Mian Sahib to lower the intensity of his attacks on the establishment in favour of the Shahbaz brand — a mix of tough political talk that aims to deflate political rivals in a very personal manner backed by solid, eye-catching development activity in the street.

To those who must downplay Shahbaz’s political prowess, it can be argued that the celebrated chief minister of Punjab deserves to be heard out separately, as a more refined, more pragmatic, a more old PML-N-like voice from within the party. He may yet be able to convince the other — shall we say the left? — plank in his party to see reason and accept that a safer route to rescue Mian Nawaz Sharif would be where PML-N, under Shahbaz, is able to first make up with its old sponsors in the establishment.

Shahbaz could as yet succeed to make a fist of it, so long as he is allowed to be in the fray and does not suffer the ignominy of a summary ouster from a race which is purely political. Shahbaz can succeed since it is first and foremost his work that draws people to the rallies to listen to Nawaz’s narrative. We have electoral proof that people like the visuals that the Shahbaz development model has thrown up. There is no guarantee on the other hand that asked to choose between their two known loves, the people will opt for Nawaz over those who painstakingly worked to turn him into Mian Sahib.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2018

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