The original prime suspect

Updated July 05, 2019

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

RANA Sanaullah’s arrest earlier this week signals a new chapter in which the PML-N is most likely going to struggle to survive. It was only a matter of time, many had been saying, and the gentleman didn’t quite need to be as indiscreet as driving around carrying 15 kilos of heroin to attract the law’s attention.

Rana Sanaullah was a cut-out case as soon as the government made clear its intentions about hauling up all suspects that were to be found. The PML-N politician from Faisalabad was an unstoppable chatterbox specialising in making the harshest remarks about anyone who had had the misfortune of crossing his path. There was no escaping the wrath of the gentleman whose sacking from the PPP allegedly over ugly remarks against women all those years ago is often cited as some kind of evidence of decency — of the PPP.

Through his ceaseless running commentary about his opponents he distinguished himself as a true dushmandar — someone who knows not just how to make enemies but also how to keep them for all times to come. And he had these dushmans available to him at so many levels, in and outside the party. There was even talk of how, despite managing to hold the second most important position after Shahbaz Sharif in the last PML-N government in Punjab, Rana Sahib had maintained his individuality enough to be known, ultimately, as someone Mian Nawaz Sharif heavily relied upon.

He was, however, more willing to betray his sentiments when it came to choosing between the next generation of Sharif leaders. One always got the impression that Rana Sahib approved of or, if such an endorsement was not needed from a career-politician who had risen in the ranks, was fond of Ms Maryam Nawaz’s resistance politics. It could be put down to his own obvious slant for fiery things.

Will this arrest, under whatever charges, make PML-N cadres insecure and lead to large-scale defections from the Sharif camp?

Speaking in relative terms, a most remarkable political feat to the credit of this firebrand politician now caught allegedly with heroin in his possession was the way he rose in stature in Faisalabad. He managed to carve out his group in his hometown even when the rival faction claimed the royal stamp on the basis of its head, Chaudhry Sher Ali being a close relative of the Sharifs.

That was by and large due to the heroics Rana Sahib had performed after the PML government was toppled in the 1999 coup. He was tortured back then and has since basked in the glory of a victim, having suffered severely at the hands of his captives.

There were other rivals in the local and intra-party politics that Rana Sana contended with amid accumulating rumours that reinforced his profile as a very influential politician in the province and particularly in his city. There were few scandals that did not rope him in for good effect, even when feeble voices asked how one man could be given so much space in one of the largest towns of the country harbouring so many interest groups.

There were people who tried to block his way but the most famous of his bruises that he never tired of flaunting was inflicted while defending the Sharif leadership. Those who had rubbed him the wrong way could always be sure that he would never get over the trauma he had suffered at their hands — which once again qualified him to be there as the nagging troublemaker who needed to be taken care of at the earliest opportunity.

When NAB took Khawaja Saad Rafique into custody a few months ago, many showed surprise. Saad Rafique might always have appeared to be daring the gods of accountability but when it came to loudness of voice and the very crude, direct manner in which the message was delivered, the politician from Lahore was no match for Rana Sahib.

Somehow, Saad Rafique and his brother Khwaja Salman Rafique beat others fit to be in the first line of the PML-N or the opposition members ready to be picked for trial by the law. The question which was raised is even more valid now: will this arrest, under whatever charges, make PML-N cadres insecure and lead to large-scale defections from the Sharif camp?

There have been developments in recent times that raise the prospects. What could not follow the arrest of the Khawaja brothers could very well be triggered in the wake of the arrest of Rana Sanaullah. Many of the PML-N lawmakers who were recently reported to have met Prime Minister Imran Khan have confirmed the contact, and others from the Sharif party are predicted to take the same route soon.

Not only that, the PTI’s drummers have already launched merrily into a drive aimed at convincing everyone that the PML-N is about to split. They have cleverly based their attack on the gap between the manners of politics pursued by Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. They point out how the party they both sought to lead is being pulled in two opposite directions.

The PML-N appears to be making a lame attempt at tying it all up with the budget and other matters. These are serious early signs about a very real phase where the party’s support base is going to come under increasing strain. There could well be some erosion of the party support, in the form of old friends parting ways with the Sharifs.

The PML-N can well say that it has survived these storms before; one of the most famous of its resistance battles was spearheaded by Rana Sanaullah, who may still have the marks to show for his steadfastness in the face of violence. But writers will insist that the politicians in line to face the law have since suffered to an extent where redemption is no more possible. Besides, the drum-beaters will be adamant that the party is ripe for a split because it has too many people wearing leaders’ hats. And they are going to beat their drums harder and harder.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2019