AFTER ascertaining that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was critically ill and probably mindful of the consequences of something happening to him, a government committed to the ‘accountability’ of all its political opponents seems to have lost its nerve.
This, to me, is why Mr Sharif has been allowed to travel abroad for treatment, notwithstanding a plethora of explanations, mainly conjecture, doing the rounds among the chattering classes and on the idiot box via the usual suspects: analysts and anchors, who say they’re well informed.
Even as there is talk of a ‘deal’ which ostensibly resulted in the decision, details of what constituted the give and take vital to any deal are conspicuous by their absence, apart from, of course, the fact that Nawaz Sharif will likely have left these shores before the start of the new week.
The ‘deal’ theorists suggest that Maryam Nawaz will be accompanying her father on his journey. What is not clear is how she’ll travel abroad, having surrendered her passport on the orders of the Lahore High Court that granted her bail last Monday.
Any observer would have said that the party in power and its key functionaries were heartless and bereft of humanity.
For her to be able to travel, the court will have to revise its bail conditions and as these lines are being written Ms Nawaz hasn’t even applied for the return of her passport. Although it may not be impossible, it does not seem likely in the time available before her father is to leave.
“Mian Sahib and Maryam Bibi didn’t return to Pakistan when faced with imprisonment even though Kulsoom Nawaz Sahiba was on her death bed to make a deal now. Receiving the best treatment is his right; nothing’s been offered in return,” a source close to the PML-N leadership told me.
In late July, just over three months ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan told several thousand cheering supporters in the Washington, D.C. area that he would take away the air conditioner, refrigerator and other facilities extended to Mr Sharif.
It has been barely a week that NAB laws were amended through a presidential ordinance to make ‘C’ class mandatory in prison for those facing corruption charges involving more than Rs50 million, a move that seemed to target Nawaz Sharif and other opposition leaders.
Government ministers and special assistants who are said to speak for the prime minister were almost mocking the critically ill PML-N leader, vilifying him and suggesting he was not really that unwell and ‘putting on an act’ to get relief even as he lay very ill in Lahore’s Services Hospital.
Any observer watching this would have said that the party in power and its key functionaries were heartless and bereft of humanity. After all, it was their vindictiveness that brought Nawaz Sharif’s health to such a critical pass where his life was now imperilled.
Anyone giving the benefit of the doubt to the PTI government and the prime minister would have believed they were clueless about the extent of how bad Mr Sharif’s condition was and, therefore, treated his illness like any other political game where all sorts of accusatory statements were kosher.
One source told me there was panic in the PTI government hierarchy when they learned through someone they consider trustworthy that the former prime minister was critically ill and was showing no signs of improvement. The tiniest of crises could take his life, they were told unequivocally.
This was when Shahbaz Sharif was informed that if the family wanted, and his physicians advised it, the government would have no issue if his elder brother was taken abroad for treatment. By this time it was clear the government wanted Mr Sharif to leave sooner rather than later.
There was realisation that taunts of ‘NRO’ and disappointment among the supporters who’d been primed for blood was one thing; something happening to the PML-N leader, when the public is seething with anger due to economic hardship, was quite another as that would be like igniting a tinder box.
One earnestly wishes that Nawaz Sharif responds to treatment and quickly regains his health. All else is secondary. The elder brother’s illness has enabled Shahbaz Sharif’s view to prevail within the PML-N as the party seems to have toned down its confrontational stance.
While in parliament, PML-N legislators gave no quarter to the government, the party remained aloof from Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March. It seems increasingly unlikely that it would rethink that decision particularly during the Sharif brothers’ absence.
If Maryam Nawaz were to join them, then any street agitation would be off the table. However, if she can’t go abroad, one source told me, she would take part in politics. In any case, she will be aware of the impact of her decision on her father’s political legacy. Who knows if the decision on the Azadi March sit-in could also be revisited?
The permission to allow the former prime minister to receive the expert medical attention he direly needs has triggered speculation that this ‘temporary exit’ will prove to be the first of the many steps towards unravelling the system.
Politics may be the art of the impossible but political punditry is proving to be a greater challenge. The most plugged-in of analysts are unable to identify the drivers of the maulana’s protest at this stage when the PML-N and PPP both begged him to wait a few months.
Even those who say he is now looking for a face-saving way out after having been left to fend for himself by his PML-N and PPP allies, acknowledge his open criticism of key institutions may have put the latter on the back foot. Others insist there is method to his madness; his agitation is not over and all its consequences have yet to emerge.
Connecting whatever the dots one can at this juncture may not paint the whole picture. However, what one can see is that if the government delivery remains as dismal as it is at present and the public discontentment gets deeper, the status quo may be in for a jolt.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2019