It was as if someone had hurled a big rock into still political waters. Maryam Nawaz Sharif has created ripples. Again. What happened outside the NAB office in Lahore on Tuesday may have been planned for a certain outcome — by both sides, one may add — or it may have just acquired a life of its own, but the outcome is fairly clear: Ms Nawaz retains the ability to shake things up in a blink of an eye.
Many strange things happened that fateful day in Thokar Niaz Beg. When the clouds of tear gas cleared, a few political questions emerged from the haze and din of broken bones and smashed windshields.
NAB got bullied? When was the last time this happened? For an organisation that strikes fear in the hearts of mortals (mostly in the opposition), this must have been an alien feeling. Was it planned by the PML-N? Insiders say the decision to take a large number of supporters with Ms Nawaz was aimed to create the right populist optics and thereby inhale some much-needed media oxygen. The last time Ms Nawaz had hit the streets for some high-octane rallies, she had been greeted by a media blackout.
This was rather unprecedented. Ever since Pakistani airwaves were filled with private channels in 2002, there were hardly any major events that had been blacked out under duress to such an extent. Contrast this with the end-to-end live coverage of the lawyers’ movement while a general served as a powerful president.
The PML-N therefore was smart enough to leverage the opportunity provided by NAB to generate some sound and heat. But what happened was a surprise. The heavy police deployment, the aggressive crowd-management, the fuelling of tempers — these created a situation that PML-N could only have dreamt of. But the real gift from NAB was offered when it issued a statement saying it would call Ms Nawaz at a later date because the situation had spiralled out of control. Had Ms Nawaz just stared down the fearsome NAB? That is when some sharp political and media sense came into play. Ms Nawaz’s decision to come out of the jeep and speak to the cameras was perfectly timed for maximum impact. “I will stay here till NAB records my statement,” she said defiantly. The tables had been turned and the hunted had become the hunter. This was NAB being bullied like never seen before. For the PML-N, optics could not have been better.
PML-N’s trailer? For some months now, many among the party leadership were getting restless. They could sense the heavy cost of quietude bearing down on them with each passing day. Here was this hulk of a party — with sizeable electoral armour, artillery and infantry in Punjab and Centre — lumbering along like a gentle giant and allowing itself to be pushed around by all and sundry. In closed door strategy sessions, many leaders would argue for some pushback, some street action, some noise that would remind everyone that the party could still flex muscles — if not throw a punch — when it wanted to. To their sheer delight, NAB offered itself as the picture-perfect punching bag. There is as yet no strategic decision about how the party will deploy its strategic weapon — that being Ms Nawaz — but Tuesday’s events provided the party an opportunity to show a trailer of what it was still capable of doing. As a bonus, bored party hawks are bored no more.
Target locked and loaded? The party of the Sharifs is still plagued with plenty of confusion but one thing is gradually becoming clear: the focus of attacks is shifting away from the Establishment and locking on to two clearly identifiable targets: PTI and NAB. Party leaders will still occasionally fire off a snide remark or a caustic reference towards the ‘selectors’ but the direction of the main offensive has changed. On Tuesday Ms Nawaz and her colleagues were noticeably silent on the umpire while bowling toe-crushing yorkers at the two players on the crease. What brought about this change?
The answer may lie in the slow burning soul searching within senior party leadership. There is as yet, according to party insiders, no clear and categorical decision about any grand strategy. Too much remains uncertain from the party’s vantage point. Mian Nawaz Sharif holds the final call on any strategy but insiders say he is giving space to the party leadership in Pakistan to manage the situation as best as it can. He pats people on the back off and on (one parliamentarian was thrilled when he received a ‘well done’ message from Nawaz Sharif on an initiative he had taken), but he is not micromanaging the party. Senior party leaders grumble privately that they have not got any ‘relief’ from the Establishment despite their relative silence, but the prevailing wisdom within the PML-N decision-making circles is to carry on with this policy of restraint till options open up. The leader himself appears fine with this policy. After Tuesday’s show of force, it is safe to assume that PML-N will re-calibrate the heat quotient in its attacks against the two identifiable targets and crank it up a notch or two.
APC on the backburner? Since Tuesday many opposition leaders have been heard wondering if the APC has been pushed into the background. While a principle decision to hold the meeting of all opposition parties had been agreed, a firm date is still awaited. Prior to Eid a dangerous rupture had opened up between PML-N and JUI-F when Maulana Fazlur Rehman had accused the two main opposition parties of not consulting his party before deciding to vote in favour of FATF bills. Efforts are under way to stitch up this political wound. However, some influential opposition leaders had been quietly arguing for weeks that APC should come up with some course of action that included hitting the streets. Those who opposed this idea argued that if street power cannot be sustained for a clear outcome, it is a waste of time. After Ms Nawaz’s power show, those arguing for street action would have a stronger case in the APC.
Her opponents bowled her a full toss on Tuesday and she middled it. If they are smart, they would want to focus more on their line and length — and a bit less on the speed.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2020