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A protest not named PML-N

October 12, 2018

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

SOME reputations are impossible to shrug off. Even though Shahbaz Sharif and Mian Nawaz Sharif have since swapped places, and the elder brother — the more capable and more worthy leader — is in command, this has not quite had the desired effect. Desired, that is, by those who had been long waiting for the PML-N to show its street muscle.

Until a few weeks ago, it was Shahbaz who would gather all the blame. While Mian Sahib made do with the safety of the prison in Rawalpindi, Shahbaz was routinely nudged, and in more frustrating moments, confronted with. His inability, or downright refusal, to conjure up agitation on the basis of the incarceration imposed on Mian Sahib and Mariam Nawaz was a source of great embarrassment — even if the feeling of humiliation was more pronounced among certain independent observers as compared to the most emotional PML-N cadres. Now, as it is Shahbaz Sahib’s turn to sit out and inside the lockup, the expectation makes it incumbent upon the ‘survivors’ outside to manufacture some kind of jailbreak for him.

Shahbaz Sahib had once infamously failed to reach the airport in Lahore to greet Mian Sahib and Maryam Bibi upon their potentially rebellious return from abroad. Had he reached the airport that evening, his party — more precisely his family — could have taken off on a journey to the greatest heights ever experienced by PML-N or for that matter any Muslim League. The airport never beckoned for the rather large crowd on a general round of Lahore that day under the leadership of Shahbaz Sahib. The taboo could not be broken.

Since then, in the mind of those willing PML-N towards the unfamiliar confrontational path, the responsibility of ending the ‘sharifana’ or gentlemanly phase in the party’s history has been shifted to Mian Sahib himself. He is out on bail and must now show the acumen and skill which so many believe he has acquired over his long career in politics. And during this display of how to actually force an opponent into acknowledging his mastery and accepting his demands, he may ideally be helped by either Maryam Bibi, or short of that, by Hamza Shahbaz or by both Maryam and Hamza.

There is a quite persistent argument for adopting a more risk-prone and adventurous course instead of the rather sober tone the party has sported so far.

We have plenty of reports emerging from closed-door PML-N sessions to be able to confirm there is a very pungent urge among in-party groups for a change of gears. There is a quite persistent argument for adopting a more risk-prone and adventurous course instead of the rather sober tone the party has sported so far. There is quite a lot of sense in the view which warns PML-N of disintegration should it continue with its current wait-and-see policy.

For the moment, however, the wait and see group in the party prevails. It seems that the PML-N leaders, at least, do not want any distractions until the by-elections on Oct 14, a couple of days from now. This could be to the advantage of the PTI but a PML-N naturally inclined to practise a quieter version of politics of decorum is long programmed to resign itself to others benefiting from its inaction. Just as the current PTI knows of no other option but to flaunt its post-revolution invincibility in the period immediately following its coming to power.

Prime Minister Imran Khan mocks PML-N and celebrates his own strength when he sarcastically offers his biggest political rivals a protest vehicle, a container, to showcase their anger and propagate their grievances. The boast has its roots obviously in the fact that the elements, including those of the unnatural kind in the peculiar makeup of Pakistan, are with the prime minister right now. In typical tradition of allegiance to and belief in your leader, the prime minister’s offer to the PML-N is echoed, with the requisite smirk, by his colleagues in PTI until it becomes a proper in-the-face refrain no opponent can easily run away from. This brings a grin of satisfaction to the faces of a large number of Pakistanis actively pushing for change or at least wishing a few new things for this country. Deep down it must be another catalyst for the voices pleading that their party, the PML-N, chooses, if nothing else, a more vigorous brand of politics at this pressing moment in its life.

In this pre by-election stretch, the PML-N response to these demands from within can be termed as extremely cautious. The party favours a controlled expression, which in the book of its detractors leads to scenes not dissimilar to Shahbaz Sahib’s aborted airport flight a few weeks ago. This time it’s Hamza Shahbaz who leads a group of PML-N lawmakers, some of them more excited than others, until he runs against the wall at the Punjab Assembly. The protest has been done alright. But as some in the crowd shout out that it was at best a ‘token’ demo, the question is whether PML-N would have been better off not coming up with these displays in, well, tokenism. These halfway side shows would create an unnecessary impression about the PML-N thinking about events other than the by-elections it claims it will sweep. The party says the Lahore by-polls are going to be a walkover for it and it will win easily in other parts of Punjab.

The state the PML-N is in, where it is uncertain about the need and ways to reinvent itself as an effective protest machine capable of launching a campaign without a visible sponsor at the top, is to the benefit of the party in government. Party detractors would be hoping that the PML-N breakup they have been long predicting will come before it decides to go full throttle on the protest path — or as it often happens in this land of suddenly discovered consciences, it will coincide with any Sharif decision to be adventurous.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2018