THE point where the PML-N search engine rammed into the NAB wall in Lahore the other day is called Thokar for a reason. Thokar here probably signifies an abrupt rise in ground level, a jump that encouraged diversion of the river. It would take some imagination to liken the recent momentum of PML-N politics with the flow of a genuine, breathing river, but maybe it can be compared with the Ravi, the abandoned Iravati, which gave Lahore its lifeline and which has been the subject of some fancy civilisational schemes by the rulers since its tragic strangulation.
The direction of the party cut off from its fountainhead Mian Nawaz Sharif has been as uncertain as that of a river that is supposed to have already run its course. As symbols go, the appearance of Ms Maryam Nawaz at Thokar Niaz Beg on Monday could have suggested a change of direction, a tactical twist. But did it with all the intense scenes that were acted out close to the NAB premises that morning?
Three days later, Lahore is still trying to figure out what had actually happened during that clash. There are accusations and counter accusations and police cases. The reporters on the beat say NAB has another case now to summon and frustrate the PML-N stalwarts with. However, like most such cases, a truth which will satisfy even the most neutral souls will never be known.
A few things are easy to assume. That a political party is inclined and fully entitled to having a show of strength as one of its leaders appears before the law in a high-profile case. That there is bound to be a display of unbridled sentiment at such an event, and there’s this danger always of the emotion spilling over into the danger zone.
The PML-N was torn between the urge to seize the moment and not irk the authorities beyond a certain limit.
It is also expected at such moments of heightened political activity that a battery of top politicians belonging to the party will be there. Expectantly, each one of them will be jostling to be photographed with the prosecuted and persecuted leader. Also, usually the organisers have a fair idea how strong a demonstration they intend it to be.
In this latest instance, it would again be unrealistic and actually apolitical to argue that anyone from the PML-N to the NAB, whose job as an accountability force ultimately is to make an example of the powerful, wanted it to be a quiet start of the week meeting. Both of them would have wanted to grab the headlines, but given the up-and-down intensity of the PML-N’s tone, the message that filters through is that they discovered things to be a little overdone. That or there was a sudden change of heart and strategy by the PML-N after the violence involving its workers.
It is clear that from a certain point onwards, the PML-N was torn between the urge to seize the moment for mass political capital and the old principle of not irking the authorities beyond a limit. The result showed up in a confused, halfhearted display of politics starring a long-promised new leader. Analysts, led by Punjab minister Fayyaz Chohan, said the gap between the politics of Mr Shahbaz Sharif and Ms Maryam Nawaz was there for everyone to see, and they were not wrong. What was worse for those who may have hoped for this to be some kind of a launching, finally, of Ms Maryam, was that Shahbaz Sharif still had a good presence. The misadventure at Thokar was proof of the dangerously impossible situations that defiant posturing could lead to. It was a confirmation that caution is the best policy.
It seemed to be an error, a half measure and a scream suppressed by the unpopular fear that could cost any other political party. In this particular instance, it may have been shrugged off by some given the particular non-eccentric brand that is forever associated with the PML-N. But there are voices which say the change is a must and if Ms Maryam cannot bring in the necessary shifts who else can. It took her ages to emerge from behind the curtain. The longer she stayed away from public view the greater was the expectation naturally. The suspense cast her as someone who was included in the cast but whose entry was delayed for maximum impact. The hardcore PML-N cadres could not be faulted for believing that she was the crucial card in the pack that could take the game to a whole new level.
It appears that Ms Maryam and her party have allowed the excitement created by the Thokar incident to fizzle out all too quickly. In fact, unlike some other opposition politicians, some of them even owing allegiance to the PML-N, Ms Maryam failed the important histrionics test. She came out as rather weak, and the footage of the whole episode betrayed that her grooming team appeared more prepared for the camera rather than the possibility of her having to break into an impassioned speech.
There is this bit of information provided by a most reliable journalist in Lahore who says Ms Maryam was constantly taking directions from Mian Nawaz Sharif. With an experienced coach like her dad there’s little room for anyone else offering her any advice, barring perhaps asking her: what is it actually that she aims to do?
Pakistanis have spent so much time and energy trying to dissuade people such as Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari from taking in-family counsel seriously. Perhaps Thokar on Aug 10, 2020, could have unveiled a new independent-thinking, a touch rebellious, a wee bit angry new leader worth wooing...
As usual the groove is just too comfortable for the family heir to want to come out of it. One appearance every few months and a lot of respect and devotion and loyalty in the bargain. This is a very convenient deal, royalty-like. If this is the image that is craved.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2020