PML-N leader Rana Mashhood stirred up a storm on Tuesday when he seemed to suggest during a TV interview that the security establishment had played a role in Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf's (PTI) victory in the 2018 elections and that it (the establishment) had now realised that the PTI leaders were not capable of delivering what had been expected of them.
The controversy began with an interview the PML-N leader gave to Samaa TV. During the interview, Mashhood was asked whether the civil-military tensions that had reportedly marred the tenure of the last PML-N government still existed after the end of the party's rule.
"I think the relations have improved to a considerable extent," Mashhood said. He was then asked how the fences with the establishment were mended.
"The situation has improved I think because 'they' have now realised that those whom they had considered horses, turned out to be mules. And the mules are not able to deliver," the video footage showed him as saying.
Although the interview available online is a compilation of clips and appears edited at points, Mashhood seemed to be suggesting that the establishment had agreed to improve relations with the PML-N because its expectations from PTI leaders had been quashed after the Imran Khan-led party came into power.
He then appeared to say that PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif had a "very large" role in the reported patch-up between the party and the establishment.
Mashhood's statements elicited a strong reaction from the military's media wing, while the PML-N distanced itself from his claims. Mashhood for his part claimed that his remarks were shared out of context.
"Attribution of an obvious vested statement by Rana Mashhood is baseless and regrettable," tweeted Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor.
"Such irresponsible expressions are detrimental to stability in the country," he added, without elaborating.
'Punjab govt may end in two months'
Later, while talking to Geo News, Mashhood reiterated his belief that the PTI government in Punjab will "end" within the next two months or so and be replaced by his own party's setup.
"It is now strongly felt that Shahbaz Sharif would have been a better choice. If Shahbaz Sharif had been prime minister, he would have handled things much better."
He also denied saying that a "deal" was in the works with the establishment to bring the PML-N back to power in Punjab.
"We have always been against any deals, we have always kept a principled stand [...] Yes, Shahbaz Sharif has always wanted to take the institutions along; to work on a new charter [to work with institutions] [...] but that does not mean some kind of deal has been struck," he said in a rambling statement.
"Everyone can work together and find a way forward in the current situation," he said.
Instead, he said that his prediction for the PTI government's fall had stemmed from chatter between different departments.
"I am basing this on inter-departmental conversations. There has been a change of heart in those circles. There will be our government in Punjab [within two months]."
The PML-N stalwart further said that incumbent Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar's reign will end within the next few months through "either a public or judicial decision".
Mashhood's remarks 'his own opinion'
As the media started to portray Mashhood’s claim as some kind of 'understanding' between the PML-N and the establishment, the party’s spokesperson disowned his statement, saying that it was his own opinion and the party had nothing to do with it.
"The statement is surprising," said Marriyum Aurangzeb, adding that the party has sought answers from the former lawmaker.
Mashhood's statements were also disowned by fellow PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah, who insisted that remarks made in individual capacity cannot be considered the party policy.
"I do not think this matter has been discussed at party level," said Sanaullah, who is also a former Punjab law minister. "Someone's remarks in their individual capacity cannot be attributed to the party."
"The PML-N will not support any non-democratic force," he added. "We are not in favour of breaking any governments and forming our own through non-democratic measures. We believe in democratic institutions and civilian supremacy; we want power through vote only."
Sanaullah, however, reiterated his party's longstanding stance on the legitimacy of the 2018 general elections, saying: "The establishment and non-democratic forces rigged the elections, and got a party a mandate that is fake."
After a strong reaction from his own party, Mashhood issued a clarification, claiming that his interview clips were broadcast out of context. "The private news channel broadcast some clips of my interview out of context. My conversation has been given a specific colour and it is against journalistic ethics".
Mashhood's remarks prove PML-N has designs on deal: Nafisa Shah
Despite Mashhood's clarification that his party was not pursuing any "deals", PPP Information Secretary Dr Nafisa Shah construed it as an admission to the contrary.
"The cat is out of the bag following Rana Mashhood's statement," Dr Nafisa said. "It has thus been proven that the PML-N was actively seeking a deal with the establishment in the name of democracy."
Commenting on the issue, PTI leader and provincial minister Mahmoodur Rashid said there was no bar on dreaming. He said Rana Mashhood did not deserve the coverage the media gave him.