PML-N’s endgame

Updated October 16, 2018


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE grand opposition alliance seemed true — momentarily — but only till the verbal condemnation of the government was on the menu. The moment the opposition parties had to walk the talk, the PML-N was left alone to protest in front of the National Assembly, supported only by the JUI-F and the PkMAP. The PPP and even the ANP were nowhere to be seen.

Ayaz Sadiq didn’t have many to discipline in his temporary, alfresco, return to the job of the speakership. Oddly enough, some of his own senior contemporaries were missing as the PML-N-led parliamentary session took place outside the parliament house.

The lacklustre show in Islamabad put paid to the predictions of those who felt that the arrest of Shahbaz Sharif would force the reluctant and elusive PPP to stand up and be counted besides the beleaguered PML-N. Caught in the accountability web in Sindh, it was argued, the PPP would stand by the PML-N because it foresaw and feared a similar moment for itself. But, despite Asif Ali Zardari’s congenial chit chat with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the PPP didn’t make it to the protest to do some standing by.

But before the brickbats fly, including the outrage about the pressures on the PPP, can a question be raised? What really is the agenda of the PML-N as far as the protests are concerned, and what is the endgame it has in mind?

It all depends on what the PML-N wants to achieve. Or, rather, what it thinks it can achieve.

This is a question that needs to be asked more often, as we pay far too much attention to dissecting the two narratives of the party and too little to the options present before it. Another way of putting it is: what is the successful or effective opposition politics in the face of what the PML-N is confronted with? It believes it has been robbed of an election, that its leadership faces orchestrated corruption cases, and there is a fear that more heads will be placed on the block.

In the face of this, what can help the PML-N? Protest à la Nawaz Sharif or reconciliation à la Sharif junior? Protests on the street or in the course of parliamentary politics?

It all depends on what the PML-N wants to achieve. Or, rather, what it thinks it can achieve. Does it want to simply destabilise the PTI government? Or does it want the PTI government to fall, the way Imran Khan once wanted to send the PML-N government packing?

But here, unlike the inexperienced Khan, the PML-N knows well that street politics will not bring a government down — unless the powers-that-be are with you. The politics of the long marches were a staple in the 1990s too; they didn’t just appear out of nowhere in 2009.

Even if the PML-N believes in the power of the street protest, does it really think that those it believes helped bring the PTI to power would throw it out within a year or two (as some are now predicting)? If so, to what end? Who would replace the PTI? The PPP or the PML-N, because the only other option is to have direct military intervention. And, even if a military adventure is possible, would it really be preferable to a PTI-led government for the PML-N?

Even if the PML-N is willing to consider this option, it wouldn’t be joined in this MAD (mutually assured destruction) plan by the PPP. The PPP, unlike the PML-N, does have Sindh. This is why the PPP’s support for the PML-N will be on-again/off-again regardless of how ruthless the accountability drive becomes. Even if the targeting becomes too aggressive, the PPP would prefer to control Sindh, which gives the party more relevance politically.

And surely the PML-N realises this, despite its continuous knocking at the door of the PPP for an alliance. This is because the PML-N knows that the political legitimacy of its protest will increase if the PPP stands with it against the PTI; a repeat of the stand the two parties took in 2014. But the PPP will shy away from committing because it has stakes in the political set-up.

But whether or not the PML-N’s protest-mode can cause damage, the party will continue with its sound and fury.

First, because it can’t sit quietly while the trigger-happy accountability musketeers go after the party leadership. The hue and cry might help slow down the drive. A case in point is the agitation by Kulsoom Nawaz, which was a factor in Musharraf’s decision to let the Sharif family go into exile after the coup.

Second, and more important, the agitation is also the only realistic option in the long run. Short of an intervention (that would mean the end of the flawed system we are struggling with), there will be a fresh election, five years down the road, in which Punjab will once again be the biggest battleground. And the party should never lose sight of this, provided the legal troubles don’t overwhelm its leaders. In order to do this, the party has to maintain its image as not just the biggest political force in the province but also the only entity opposing the PTI government. As did Imran Khan, so must the PML-N not miss a chance to take on the PTI and mark it as the enemy.

And the more mistakes the PTI makes, the easier the PML-N’s job will be. In fact, there are suggestions that, sooner rather than later, the PTI will make a big mistake, giving the PML-N the chance to strike — as the PTI did with the Panama issue. The PTI’s track record at the moment is, indeed, leading many to conjecture in a similar vein. And observers feel that the PML-N should wait till this moment to make its protest more aggressive.

But focusing on the PTI may mean putting aside the PML-N’s narrative against the establishment, the judges and the military. It would mean dumping the Sharif senior’s ‘narrative’. Can the party — or rather Nawaz Sharif — do this?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2018