THE PPP and the PML-N are, or are close to, getting united. The ruling party members, including their chief, are aghast. But it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the PTI to refuse credit here for the union between its two fiercest rivals. It’s been a while since the PTI clubbed them together for a more convenient tackling of the corrupt that must be disposed of fast. For the latter part of the period that the PTI has been in power, it was more a case of them — the corruption-cases-riddled leaders of the PPP and PML-N — not being able to join each other.
The details of his campaign may have differed, but Imran Khan fought the 2018 election against the PML-N in Punjab and the PPP in Sindh on the strength of a single slogan. He painted both of them as corrupt, even though, as reputations went, his allegations might have stuck to one of these parties — the PPP — more solidly than they did to his Punjabi opponents, the Sharifs. Post-election, there was a lot of talk about how the PML-N and then the PPP needed some kind of reprieve or a deal, in order to survive the accountability juggernaut during the Imran Khan term. Originally, the Sharif and Zardari camps decided to go in search of the elixir on their own.
The PPP had done well in Sindh in the 2018 election. This was a surprise for those who had been predicting deep damage to Mr Asif Ali Zardari’s party in the province — much deeper than was reflected in the shock loss of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in Lyari in a Karachi which virtually decided that it was Mr Khan’s turn to take the throne in Islamabad. The better-than-expected performance by the PPP could well have created a sense of security among the PPP cadres, probably giving birth to a thinking in the party that it was being ‘given’ space to manoeuvre.
In an unfamiliar territory where now three, not the usual two, parties were pitted against each other, the PPP might have miscalculated again, just as it had wrongly assumed in the past that the PTI would eat into the PML-N’s right-wing vote bank. Now again the PPP might have mistakenly thought that the burden of dealing with the inevitable accountability phase would lie squarely with the PML-N, which the PTI had replaced in power courtesy an election and a long acrimonious protest.
For the latter part of the period that the PTI has been in power, it was more a case of them — the corrupt leaders of the PPP and PML-N — not being able to join each other.
Asif Zardari’s gestures immediately after the last election betrayed that he was confident. He had the air of a man who had been assured of another lease of life by the gods. And in his exuberance, you would recall that the PPP supremo at the time wasn’t quite in the mood to entertain any thoughts about him having to enter any alliance with the Sharifs. The PPP’s escape seemed so imminent to some. The biggest price was to be paid by the Sharifs and their long-standing associates in power, the word went around.
It took the PPP a few arrests and cases by NAB to realise that there was no point going solo in these tough times. The poise and the trademark confident grin was now replaced by a desire and urgent need to court the Sharifs. And it was part of this new strategy that took Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to Kot Lakhpat jail for a meeting with Mian Nawaz Sharif. It had fallen on the shoulders of the now 30-year-old and more mature BBZ to do what his mother had been confronted with more than a decade ago: converting the Sharifs to the PPP’s logic.
Back then, an insistent Benazir Bhutto had ensured that the PML-N took part in the general election with Gen Pervez Musharraf as president — and the polls was eventually held in 2008 after BB’s death in December 2007. Now the Sharifs were faced with another crisis which endangered their existence as the most consistent ruling family in the history of Pakistan.
The images relating to the BBZ-Mian Sahib meeting were deceptive — a young leader of an erstwhile rival party trying to convince the older man to be a little more adventurous with his politics or risk being condemned to his prison cell forever. This was more a case of turnaround for both parties, since U-turns happen to be such a notorious term. Mian Sahib was earlier reluctant to shake hands with the stigmatised PPP leaders but so far as rhetoric was concerned, before a period where Shahbaz Sharif’s reconciliation plank was allowed to try its luck, the PML-N’s supreme leader had spoken in much stronger terms against those he accused of throwing out of power. At that time, Asif Zardari & Co were too timid with their pronouncements about how NAB was anathema to the country’s health.
For many weeks following Nawaz Sharif’s ouster, both before and after the 2018 election, he fought his own battle, just as others in his party, notably Shahbaz Sharif, explored safe exits for Mian Sahib. With time, the frequency of friendly overtures from the PPP increased and they sounded more and more desperate. By then, the false sense of security that might have convinced the PPP leaders that the accountability sword was more likely to be aimed at the PML-N had vanished.
This has not been easy. The alliance between the PPP and the PML-N is not the most natural of all — even though stranger things have happened in the past. Some PML-N reluctance may be evident in those looking for total commitment to the cause — from the likes of Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz — and those who are inclined to then compare what these two PML-N leaders betray with the energy displayed by BBZ. Bonded together by fate and the party in the government, they will need some urgent proof that they can overcome a divided past for joint movement towards a secure future. We may be in for some quick action post-Eid.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2019