THERE is trouble brewing within the PML-N. With Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif away in London for some months now, Maryam Nawaz in political hibernation — her recent brief appearance notwithstanding — and Hamza Shahbaz in jail, the family leadership of the party is practically inactive.

Read more: PML-N demands Shehbaz Sharif's return from London

Now there are reports of disgruntlement within the rank and file about the lack of direction of the party. The parliamentary party meeting held earlier this week saw heated exchanges between some senior members amid a rising chorus that Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif return home. The general drift has also affected the party’s relationship with the PPP and the JUI-F both of whom feel that the PML-N has abdicated its responsibility towards the other opposition parties. If the PML-N leadership has a game plan, very few in the party seem to be aware of it. This is problematic at various levels.

By opting to vote in favour of the extension of the army chief, the PML-N leadership took a huge decision to change the strategic direction of its politics. The decision came as a surprise to almost every party leader and parliamentarian. It was followed as ordered but people remained uncertain why the decision was taken and how it would benefit the party. Many weeks later, the party rank and file still remains unaware of the contours of this new party policy.

The release from jail of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal, two front-line leaders, promised greater clarity and direction, but, instead, their positions and statements seem to be highlighting the cleavages within the leadership. This confusion coincided with some PML-N MPAs in Punjab meeting the chief minister thereby triggering speculation about the emergence of a forward bloc within the party. It was perhaps an attempt to stem this drift that Maryam Nawaz ended her silence and made a public visit to Islamabad.

If it wants to remain relevant the party would have to put its house in order. The most obvious step towards this end would be for the head of the party to do politics within the country, build a clear narrative and coordinate with other opposition leaders. A leadership calling the shots from foreign shores will only dishearten party members at home, to the point where defections would not be surprising. The PML-N may be going through a phase of self-reckoning but if this phase stretches for too long — which it is — it can easily lead to a loss of confidence, clarity and cohesion. Keeping the party guessing is never a good policy option whichever way one looks at it. The top-tier leadership may want to make amends before the disgruntlement gets louder, while Mr Shahbaz Sharif might also want to consider the great injustice he is doing to his position as opposition leader in parliament by staying away.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020

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