The taming of the shrewd

24 May, 2020

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The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IN a recent interview, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi narrated an eyewitness account of how the establishment expressed its unhappiness with Nawaz Sharif’s government. He spoke of the time when the PTI and Tahirul Qadri were staging protests in Islamabad. Abbasi, in an office with a view of the Federal Secretariat gate, saw some plainclothes men turn up and disperse the police. The protesters then assumed charge, inspecting every vehicle coming or going. The goal was to embarrass politicians and bureaucrats as they emerged from their offices.

Abbasi has been constant in his line of attack. But overall, the PML-N has been less consistent.

Shahbaz Sharif is keen to talk about anything but the establishment and its supposed meddling in PML-N affairs; he focuses on that part of the PML-N slogan which is about his hard work and ignores claims of interference in the people’s right to choose.

Meanwhile, Maryam Nawaz, the Sharif family member once supposedly all in favour of taking on unelected meddling, broke her five-month silence on Twitter on Jan 8 to voice her congratulations. She also changed her profile picture to different photographs of her father without comment.

Since tweeting good wishes for Shahbaz Sharif before his recent return to Pakistan in March, she has praised the Lahore School of Economics for condemning lavish weddings, and expressed her sorrow at Rishi Kapoor’s death and Friday’s plane crash. There is no political commentary, let alone the expression of a desire to ‘respect the vote’.

Former PM Abbasi has been constant in his line of attack; the PML-N, less so.

A senior journalist once turned up late for a televised special transmission, evidently groggy from the night before. He had flown back from a live mic tour of flooded rural Pakistan in the morning. When planning a party with alcohol and dancers, the local influential host would send the first few invitations to a high-ranking member of the local police, the preferred local politician and the local reporter. The invitation to the policeman ensured there would not be a raid, the politician so that he would not call out the policemen for failing to act, and the journalist to prevent bad press.

During the last leg of the tour, the groggy journalist had been invited to such a party. Because you knew what you were planning was illicit, you made sure everyone who mattered was involved. The groggy journalist had threatened enough by way of an unexpected discovery whilst looking for flood victims.

Nawaz Sharif’s ‘respect-for-the-vote’ rallies in 2018 ahead of the elections were pitched as the aged tiger finally realising that in this jungle it was his duty to address and correct the invasion of our political process. These rallies petered out when Nawaz and Maryam left to be with the ailing Kulsoom Nawaz. After the July 6, 2018 sentencing in absentia of Nawaz and Maryam, an even more principled return was planned by offering themselves up for what was claimed as unjust imprisonment.

The party propaganda arm spun this voluntary return as their leader’s Mandela moment. It was supposed to be the launching pad of the PML-N’s election campaign. Reception rallies were planned. Then Shahbaz and his followers lost their way to the airport. Nawaz and Maryam were surgically extracted, bundled on a plane and flown to Rawalpindi. The PML-N chose to dial down the noise against the establishment.

The PML-N preferred further retreat after the dismal electoral return where the party had hoped to keep Punjab, rather than cry foul when the electronic poll management system crashed. Shahbaz once again took the lead in the job of looking busy but doing nothing too disruptive as leader of the opposition. With the September 2018 passing of her mother, and the suspension of her (and Nawaz’s) sentences by the Islamabad High Court, Maryam re-emerged but remained silent.

Then, in July 2019, amidst reports of Nawaz’s poor health, she held another series of fierce respect-for-the-vote rallies, which abruptly ended with her arrest in another NAB reference. On Oct 29, 2019, Nawaz was released on bail on humanitarian grounds, and allowed to proceed abroad for treatment. Maryam was granted bail a few days later. Calls for respecting the vote remained suspended.

Perhaps there was a moment when on principle Nawaz decided to fight the only real fight in the country, right before the 2018 elections. But at every point thereafter, the PML-N as a party has shown realisation that the price of true democracy is too high in the current climate. Every move made thereafter, save for a few brave individuals at their own peril, has precipitated some form of relief for the Sharifs.

Revolutionary changes and disruptions to the status quo come as a result of consistent positions and the slow but persistent building of popular pressure. Playing liberator to a convenient schedule may buy leverage, but the claim of a higher purpose is eroded.

Perceptions of principle were further lost when on Dec 20, 2019, Senator Pervaiz Rasheed merrily stated that his party was going soft on the establishment because they were being soft in return. Any excuse that this statement was in jest was put to rest with the capitulation of the PML-N on the issue of the Army Act amendment.

The PML-N had an opportunity to consistently shed light on all supposed murky happenings surrounding the 2018 elections as Abbasi attempts to do on his own. But for that, it would have to embrace the whole truth, where there would be admissions about illogical money trails and Qataris dampening the ammunition against them. The party would then have to rely on the forgiveness and forgetfulness of the people, something it has done before when Saad Hariri came to Pakistan displaying the terms of exile on behalf of the Saudi royals which the Sharifs had denied existed.

What the PML-N has settled for is to threaten only; whilst accepting the legitimacy of the hosts, and trying to make the hosts realise they are able to cause enough trouble to warrant inclusion. It is playing the groggy journalist.

The hosts know of the illicit nature of their party. Increasingly wary of service so far, perhaps they are flirting with the idea of extending an invitation.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @jaferii

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2020