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Parties within parties

May 10, 2019

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

THERE is a PPP controlled by Mr Asif Ali Zardari, and within that party, the hopefuls cannot help locating another party, which is waiting to work, or is already working, under Mr Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. Then there’s a whole PPP inside the PTI that Mr Imran Khan falls back on when he is desperately looking for agents to take his message of change forward.

From time to time, we hear the grumbling of the original PTI against the prime minister giving too much importance to these PPP-ites as well as technocrats, but so long as it all serves democracy, there’s little real reason for anyone to be perturbed.

The political parties in Pakistan have grown in their own ways in peculiar circumstances. If earlier they had factions, today they have entire parties within parties that are catapulted to prominence by a wave or by necessity.

Like now when Mian Nawaz Sharif’s party, it is being said, has taken over the PML-N. It has been put in charge because the Shahbaz Sharif party had not been able to come up to expectations. As is quite the norm these days, the change of command from Shahbaz to Nawaz has been accompanied by a royal clamour in which Mr Shahbaz Sharif is being painted as someone who has caused irreparable damage to the PML-N — without, of course, endangering his permanent place as an important member of the dynasty.

A whole new setup, that has PML-N stalwarts operating from a variety of party posts, is in place now.

Mr Shahbaz Sharif had managed to take command of the party with a promise. His leadership signified a PML-N will to relocate patrons among Pakistani kingmakers so that the party could be cleared as a hopeful among power-seekers in the country. The decision had been taken after apparent deliberation within the party and the Sharif household. It led to — or was preceded by — the resistance-duo of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz allowing themselves to be turned into a spectacle of sorts by deciding not to speak on any issue.

The onus of leading the party towards a compromise rested entirely with the Shahbaz Sharif party within the PML-N. This right plank within the party appeared to be doing quite well until recently. Its strategy was credited with achieving results such as getting Mian Sahib out of jail, even if temporarily, and providing Shahbaz Sharif himself an opportunity to don his favourite headgear in a climatically more accommodating and freer London. But then something snapped and there had to be a quick change in strategy, and a change within the party.

What could it be? At the risk of sounding repetitive, it is said that there is a danger lurking that could destroy the PML-N as well as the two parties that coexist inside it. In recent times, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been seen flaunting his new local government system, which itself has emerged from the old system born and then ruined during Gen Musharraf’s time. It was invented by the general’s reconstruction bureau and then mutilated by Musharraf allies jealously guarding the old centralised order against any progressive advance of a new grass-roots level, pro-people alternative.

The system is back in Punjab wearing new clothes and enjoying the encouragement of a new father figure in Prime Minister Khan — just as many relics of the Musharraf era, including the politicians prominent at the time, have returned to the national stage.

A similar local government system had earlier been installed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with some of the regular observers in that province saying they were not impressed. In Punjab, however, the new arrival could lead to creating quite a lot of space for the PTI to work in and snatch from the PML-N’s control.

It is not clear how the PML-N would have gone about it had its attempt to free Mian Sahib for medical treatment abroad succeeded. Could it have still opted for a change of guard under the Nawaz-Maryam duo, or persevered with its strange silent politics? The party may say that it is not important now to answer this question.

What is easy to guess is that Mr Shahbaz Sharif’s flight abroad and the reality of Mian Sahib having to go back to jail made it all the more simple for the PML-N as a whole to make the decision. The party decided to cap this phase — or start a new chapter— with the ‘triumphant’ return of Mr Nawaz Sharif.

A whole new setup, that has PML-N stalwarts operating from a variety of party posts, is in place now. It is ready to work under the re-energised leadership of Mian Sahib. More precisely, party insiders have been quoted as assigning a pivotal role to Ms Maryam Nawaz in proportion to her promise before she suddenly fell silent for what is a very long period for anyone with ambitions to redefine national politics. A lot has changed since, and the challenge is even bigger.

The method, PML-N voices say, is going to be different and effective. However, the goal, they will know, will be the same as the one pursued by Mr Shahbaz Sharif who had many members of the new Nawaz Sharif team, which has been given the party reins, working for him as well. Since the aim remains the same and there’s no real talk of a split, the two parties in the PML-N will likely merge once the patrons have been sufficiently won over.

It is a bit like these wrestling bouts we see on television involving two pairs of grapplers pitched against each other. While one member of the team fights it out in the middle of the ring, his partner can use the time to catch his breath. Quite often the climax is marked by both the fighters in the team letting loose a barrage of blows on their opponents or — as is often the case with these mock power shows — pretending to do so. The outcome is decided long before the final punch is delivered.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2019