SPRING has brought with it the season of reconciliation. While our prime minister is reaching out to India, the opposition is also in the mood for some love and friendship.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari played statesmen as he visited the ailing Nawaz Sharif in jail. It was a gesture widely applauded and appreciated. And at the same time, it set off fevered speculation of a new opposition alliance, which in turn triggered predictions of trouble for the PTI.
With the numbers being what they are in the National Assembly, a combined alliance of the PML-N and PPP can end up causing considerable grief to the ruling party, and even bring down the government. But can the PPP and PML-N, jilted allies of the past, embrace each other once again?
The stories doing the rounds after the jail visit seemed to suggest so, as did Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s press talk as he came out. He spoke of ‘Mian sahib’ as being ‘nazriyati’ and not interested in a deal with the rulers. In addition, it was reported that the Charter of Democracy was discussed by the two party leaders as well as the idea of cooperation. But it seems as if in the days that followed, more noise about this came from the PPP than the PML-N. The latter seemed quieter as is its wont these days.
The PML-N would not want to invite more trouble for itself by getting together with the PPP.
On the other hand, the week that was, belonged to the PPP. The visit to the jail was followed by a stormy press conference by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, in which he railed against many things including the big bad PTI, its links to extremism as well as the ease with which politicians are punished in Pakistan while militants seem to carry on blithely despite bans galore. For many, he was coming into his own as a leader, revealing shades of the same defiance associated with his grandfather and mother. But for others, the young emerging leader was sounding the war bugle because the legal troubles of his father, aunt and others were about to get messier.
Also read: Zardari, Bilawal & the future of PPP
By Friday, the banking court in Karachi had transferred the money laundering case against Asif Zardari and his sister to the NAB courts in Islamabad, withdrawing their bail as well. In NAB cases, bails are harder to secure because this power lies with the high court. And since the Supreme Court judgement in the NAB appeal against the bail given to Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz by the Islamabad High Court, the latter at least, has been rather averse to giving bail to the ‘NAB-zadas’.
Indeed, it has been conjectured, perhaps not incorrectly, that the PPP’s efforts to make nice with the PML-N have been prompted by their rapidly growing legal troubles. After all, just a handful of months ago, the PPP was in a less conciliatory mood when it ditched the PML-N in parliament at the time of the prime minister’s election, or even earlier when it had no qualms about getting its hands dirty in the Senate elections. Those were also the bad old days when the PPP was quite gleeful about the Sharifs paying for their ‘corrupt’ deeds, including Panama.
In those days, it was rumoured that Nawaz Sharif would have been happy to meet Asif Zardari, but that it was the latter who was not interested. In those troubled times for the PML-N, the PPP was closer to the former’s opponents than interested in democratic struggles or the charter it had once signed with Nawaz Sharif’s party. The PML-N has not forgotten all this as the PPP once found it hard to forget the times the PML-N betrayed it — during the ‘Memogate’ controversy; the accountability drive in Karachi when the likes of Asim Hussain were picked up; and then in the days after Zardari’s ‘eent se eent’ speech against the military establishment.
Nawaz Sharif is not known to be a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, so it is hard to tell if he was genuinely welcoming of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, having forgotten all that his party has yet to. But even if he has, he and his party have as much reason to cooperate with the PPP as the PPP had to cooperate with the N-League during the Senate election and then after the July general elections.
The PML-N appears to have scraped through the worst of its problems. Nawaz Sharif’s accountability court trials are over. Acquitted in one and convicted in two, he is now looking to secure his bail in the second one. The Supreme Court has accepted his appeal for bail on medical grounds.
His younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, has secured bail in the two accountability references, despite the strictures of the apex court (which may have caused the Islamabad High Court to become conservative in bail cases, but not the Lahore High Court which heard Shahbaz Sharif’s cases). The Lahore High Court bail order passed a verdict of sorts on the merits of the NAB cases against Shahbaz Sharif.
Take a look: What next for PML-N?
Maryam Nawaz and her husband are already out on bail, while her cousin Hamza, despite the investigations against him, was allowed to travel to London. Hamza’s brother, Salman, flew to London sometime ago. In addition, the PML-N also seems to have come to terms with its defeat in the 2018 election. For the moment, it is focused on keeping itself together, safe from any further onslaught of the powers that be.
In other words, the PML-N would not want to invite further trouble for itself by getting together with the PPP. It would, instead, prefer to ensure bail for Nawaz Sharif, and then try and make sure the wheels of justice continue to grind slowly — very slowly, perhaps. Why would it, at this moment, want to take to the streets with the PPP when it can see light at the end of the tunnel?
Even the most nazriyati in the PML-N would not argue against this — especially as no one is really willing to believe that the PPP would actually turn nazriyati. Despite its serious legal problems, the PPP still has Sindh to hang on to. How aggressively can it protest? In other words, the PTI has little to fear from its opponents (for the moment). Chances are that they will keep parliament noisy and chaotic, but not the streets outside. The ruling party’s Achilles heel is not those opposing it, but its own confusion and internal fault lines.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2019