The reactions to the release of Mian Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, along with that of Capt Safdar, are bewildering to say the least. It was a foregone conclusion that the former prime minister and his daughter, who had been imprisoned while leading the resistance plank of the PML-N, would be bailed out. In the wake of their arrest, it was also deduced, on the authority of legal experts, that they would be freed in the not too distant future while the hearing of the cases against them would continue. In the background of all these assumptions and assurances, it is a little odd how, after their release, some of us are now behaving as if we have been abruptly woken up.
Yes, this is a party spoiler, no doubt. The end of 60-odd days of incarceration for Mian Sahib and Maryam Bibi came when Imran Khan’s PTI was still in the middle of shifting from celebratory gear to business phase. The voices, dripping with hope and confidence and a lot of ambition, from the inner bastions of Imran’s new edifice were still being overheard in public.
There might have been some dismay at the sheer personal bias that appears to have informed many of the skipper’s choices — in a throwback to how he would once select his playing eleven in the cricket field. But then, those whose belief in Khan sahib’s magic is unshakable might want to furnish this very knack of picking up the best talent from the pool available to him nearby as evidence that their leader retains his old Midas touch.
There were other formalities which were being fulfilled. A Turkish minister had already been to Islamabad to corroborate in person that the baton in Pakistan had safely been transferred from a proven friend, the Sharif family, to a reliable and willing new aspirant. Here he was — Imran Khan, potentially long-lasting on the strength of the glorious words he had spoken about what Turkey represented in the modern world in one of his earliest statements after winning power.
It seemed as if the sanity restored to Pakistani politics after long years of deafening confrontation had not gone down too well with certain sections.
When everyone was speaking of relief — in other words an imminent Sharif release from Adiala — Prime Minister Khan was in Saudi Arabia on his first official tour abroad. The visit was being viewed with great anticipation, in the context of a tradition that projects the Saudi friends as the permanent rescuers of Pakistan from all kinds of crises. Prime Minister Khan being accorded a real royal reception in the holy land was probably being looked upon by many Pakistanis as some kind of a formal transfer of power from the Sharifs, the so-called Arab favourites.
In other areas also, members of the PTI’s core group were busy setting directions. The gas tariffs had just been set right. Those in the habit of wasting such a precious natural national resource had been censured in the most apt manner that could occur to overtly taxed minds looking to create an impression with their first official assignment.
Also, the famous 800,000 club had been duly chastened for applauding some of the tax measures adopted by the last PML-N government just before it ended its term. The breathing space the Sharif aides had cleverly sought to give certain elite categories from among these 0.8 million chosen souls had been taken back.
And if this were not new enough, there was the most notable and progressive of all PTI declarations in this initial phase. The prime minister promised to give Pakistani citizenship to all ‘refugee children’ born in the country. The idea may have some unforeseen repercussions given the narrow territory within which some of the political players and ordinary citizens operate here. But obviously, this was an assertion no forward-looking person can ever oppose — least of all raising any eyebrows in a land whose natives have followed in droves the naturalised route to citizenship in other countries.
By Wednesday evening, there was some talk about how Prime Minister Khan didn’t quite mean it the way it had come out in some accounts. But by then the event of Mian Sahib & family coming out and emerging as a challenger to PTI’s budding setup had taken over everything. It seemed as if the sanity and peace restored to Pakistani politics after long years of deafening confrontation had not gone down too well with certain sections here.
As soon as the trio had packed their bags to leave Adiala, there was a stream of comments dipped in expectancy and let loose in the media. Much of it urged Mian Sahib, and Maryam Nawaz, to take up causes in the same vein in which the duo had operated before they were sent to jail. Some of the enthusiasts went as far as to advise the revolutionary leadership to take the GT Road back to Lahore from Rawalpindi, in a repeat of the journey which had set the tone for the Sharif defiance after Mian Sahib was ousted as prime minister by a court decision in July 2017.
There are so many valid reasons for the old-mould opposition campers to greet the coming of Mian Sahib and Maryam Bibi. But they might only be courting disappointment if they allow themselves to believe that the freed PML-N leaders are immediately going to adopt the same tone and frequency they had sustained for many months in the one-year period leading to their imprisonment. They may be badly mistaken.
Apparently, one of the biggest reasons, if not the most important cause, for that tactic then was the approaching election. PML-N thinkers might say the banner of resistance put up by Mian Sahib and his daughter was to a large extent responsible for keeping the PML-N alive and kicking in vast parts of Punjab. That objective is now absent; it will be unrealistic of Mian Sahib to right away aim for a bigger target, like dislodging the firmly entrenched PTI government. Thus, in the circumstances, Mian Sahib might let himself and others such as Shahbaz Sharif explore other options to stay alive and relevant and in contention.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018