What Maryam did next

Updated June 25, 2019

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

HER press conference on Saturday changed the political conversation in a flash, with everyone focusing on what she had or had not said and what it meant or did not mean. For Maryam Nawaz is now acknowledged as the heir apparent, as well as the voice of her father.

No wonder then that her dismissal of the notion of a charter of economy has poured water over the idea. Not only did she pooh-pooh the suggestion, she also stated that her father didn’t think it was a good idea either. It’s hard to remember if she said this before or after she mentioned that all final decisions of the party are made by her father, even if Shahbaz Sharif and she herself do hold the views that are aired. But she said it; and as a result what she claimed was her personal opinion ended up being stamped as the party’s view.

And thanks to these short sentences, Shahbaz Sharif’s three-hour-long speech in parliament was consigned to the bin. Poor SS; his career trajectory is beginning to resemble that of Prince Charles.

And those of us who are paid to interpret the madness called politics in Pakistan will continue to examine Maryam’s relationship with her uncle in the days to come.

The press conference began as one by a daughter. She spoke of her father’s health and what she considers his mistreatment in prison. It appeared to be an effort to create pressure for his release on bail — now that Nawaz Sharif’s bail petition has been rejected by the Islamabad High Court, his lawyers will perhaps appeal to the Supreme Court.

Unlike Bilawal, Maryam’s transgressions will be noted more.

The daughter made her point in around half an hour.

Inevitably, the journalists present wanted to ask questions and they were less interested in medical matters and more in political issues. And the budding politician took over.

This is where she spoke of the charter of economy, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the military and other issues.

There is a likelihood that she didn’t realise her words would create a storm in a teacup. This is lent credence by the interview she gave shortly after the press conference. Exclusive interviews which span the entirety of the programme tend to not be conducted on the phone. It seemed as if it was agreed to in a hurry to provide some clarity on the questions raised by the press conference — especially her relationship with her uncle who is also the president of the party.

But, it was not just family relations which hinted at her inability to evade tricky questions; she wasn’t able to navigate the ones about the military either.

At the press conference where she tried to express her concern over efforts to make the institution controversial by including it in a politically motivated commission to explore debt, she wasn’t able to hide her resentment over the ISI official who grilled her in the joint investigation team while the rest of the members stayed quiet. Similarly, by asking that the debt commission should look at the Musharraf years and at the Coalition Support Funds, she may have raised eyebrows in Pindi and beyond.

It is hard to believe this is deliberate because the past few months have brought forth a very different Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who has done more than just kept quiet about the institutions she was seen to have launched verbal attacks against prior to the election. It seems once again a combination of inexperience (of formal press interactions) as well as losing her cool; something which will cost her as women are judged more harshly for any expression of emotion than men.

In addition, what was lost in the din over her uncle and civil-military relations was what appears to be her far-from-easy relationship with many of her father’s second tier — they were missing from her luncheon as well as her press conference. For example, leaders such as Shahid Khaqan Abbasi have been taking the mickey out of the idea, arguing that all Khan needed to do was look at the finance ministry documents to see what money has come in and where it has gone. But Maryam Nawaz seems to have taken the idea seriously by questioning its members and the time period it will investigate.

It can perhaps be ventured that these fault lines will continue to crop up again and again as she tries to play a more public role as an opposition leader. The friction between the two branches of the family was always a headline-making story but in the recent past it had seemed that the legal and political troubles had put it on the back-burner, where it would stay till their troubles eased. Clearly this is not to be. There may not be a break but neither will the differences be allowed to be forgotten.

Similarly, the unease between the heir and the senior party leadership will also not stay too far beneath the surface. For it is already apparent that she will create a new second tier for herself as did Benazir Bhutto; though it appears that Maryam has already begun the process.

And third, she will continue to be questioned about her views on the military, and her answers will make headlines. At the moment, Maryam is not too adept at the pragmatism she says Shahbaz Sharif possesses; she strains against diverting from the more confrontational path which will be hard to hide as she interacts with people and the press. And unlike Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who simply enjoys the advantage of not being Asif Ali Zardari, her transgressions will be noted more.

As a result, her press interactions are bound to be fraught with controversies. It remains to be seen if this will compel her to avoid the media or learn to embrace it as did Imran Khan as an opposition leader.

This along with her ability to handle the fault lines mentioned here will determine if she will be able to make living in Islamabad as difficult for Imran Khan as he did for the PML-N. The learning curve is a steep one for her.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2019