LAST week brought some good news for the Sharifs in the shape of the Islamabad High Court bail order. The earlier respite of parole, perhaps, was far too short for the loss they had suffered. And as they returned home to Lahore before the long weekend, there was little political news from Raiwind, and understandably so.
But this hasn’t stopped many from reporting on brainstorming sessions and debates between hawks and doves and a new Armageddon. (Some excited supporters even suggested another journey down GT Road shortly after the court announced its decision.)
Still, all this talk of political plans and decisions seems a little premature. The Sharifs are out on bail after all; this is rather different from being acquitted. And their legal troubles continue to loom large.
Nawaz Sharif is still disqualified for life (from contesting elections) thanks to a Supreme Court judgement, with no hope of a further appeal to overturn the ban. He also has to face two references — Al Azizia and Hill Metal — at the trial court, while his and Maryam Nawaz’s appeal against the conviction in the Avenfield case is yet to be heard by the high court. In the latter, there is the fear that should the court find the prosecution’s evidence convincing, the bail could be reversed — at the moment, the bail has been given after the prosecution and the defence presented arguments on the trial court’s judgement; the two-judge bench is yet to hear the actual evidence that formed the basis of the conviction.
The season of autumn will bring not just lower temperatures but also mellowed temperaments.
With all these legal battles to be fought, the Sharifs will most probably be counselled against antagonising the judiciary as they did earlier. Their bail, the disqualification and then the reversal of Khawaja Asif’s disqualification and the judgement in the Hudaibya case are just a few examples to show that the judiciary is not a monolith gunning for the PML-N.
This is not a bad time to keep this notion in mind. Most lawyers, while mounting a good defence in the courtroom, would advise against provoking the institution.
Undoubtedly, the lawyers would have counselled restraint back in the summer also. But that was a different time for the charged-up father and daughter.
The season of autumn will bring not just lower temperatures but also mellowed temperaments; there is no longer an election to be fought. The defiance before July was not without purpose, even though it was a miscalculated one.
The Sharifs, and those they heeded, believed that their support base was angry — so angry that if their emotions were further whipped up, they would vote the PML-N into power yet again. And with such great numbers that those conspiring against the Sharifs would be stopped short in their tracks (how that was to be achieved was always a little unclear to those of us watching from the outside and with no inside ‘sources’). The popular support was perhaps supposed to scare the ‘unnamed’ forces arrayed against the Sharifs, who included but were not limited to the ‘paanch’ men.
There was also a more nuanced view that a big electoral victory would perhaps translate into numbers so comfortable that the party would be able to change the law and reverse the disqualification, but it’s never been clear whether the Sharifs themselves bought into this point of view. It appeared that the ‘doves’ in the party subscribed to this view — that ignoring the provocation, if the party focused on winning the election, it could use its numbers in parliament to address its legal and political troubles. This argument was based on the assumption that an election victory could not go hand in hand with a confrontation, and required more than simply the support of the people.
The point here is that right or wrong aside, the confrontational strategy of the Sharifs had a purpose before the election — and that purpose was also sufficient to interest the local-level politicians who are key to the arrangements that ensure a successful jalsa. A visit of the party’s top leadership can, at times, decide a constituency-level fight.
But immediately after the election, there is little purpose (or rather no end to) such an exercise of fiery rallies and jalsas, and there will be little interest locally too. And, street power in and of itself (without other forces at play) cannot bring a regime or government down, as Imran Khan learnt in 2014.
The Sharifs are far too experienced to not understand this, especially after the election results. So, chances are that there will be little of the fierce anti-establishment politics we saw at play in the run-up to the July general election.
It would be best for the PML-N to lie low and to let the PTI-run government take centre stage and do its best (or worst as the PML-N wallahs have been predicting since before the elections). The Noonies will get a chance to strike once the PTI makes a mistake or two (or more). For as we saw from 2016 onwards, a government’s own mistakes cost it the next election. It would not be wrong to say that on July 25, the PML-N lost an election far more than the PTI won it.
But this is not to say that all will be quiet in Lahore and Jati Umra. Till the PTI provides them with an opportunity, the Sharifs will be busy with their tussle over running the party. Now that there is no neat division of Punjab and the centre to give both parts of the family their own fiefdoms, who will get what is a million-dollar question. There are other thorny issues about deciding the course of action inside parliament and trying to reach out to the opposition.
The PML-N has not really had much experience at trying to do opposition politics. Which of the Sharifs will prove to be adept at doing opposition politics (that involves far more than just kicking up a noise on the floor of the house) remains to be seen. And this will perhaps prove as interesting as the PTI efforts at learning to govern.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2018