Situationer: Politics from Avenfield — the new normal?

Updated 20 Sep 2020

Email

It has been more than a year since the PML-N’s sup­reme leader publicly commented on any poli­tical development. — AFP/File
It has been more than a year since the PML-N’s sup­reme leader publicly commented on any poli­tical development. — AFP/File

For Mian Nawaz Sharif, the road ahead is strewn with obstacles, but the direction is becoming increasingly clear: silence is no longer an option.

It has been more than a year since the PML-N’s sup­reme leader publicly commented on any poli­tical development. Since an accountability court con­victed him in corr­up­tion cases in 2018, he has seen a tumultuous period; his arrest and incarcera­tion along with that of his daughter Maryam Nawaz, the passing of his ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz in London as he served his sentence in Adiala, his departure from Pakistan for medical treatment, fresh arrest warrants and the court-sanctioned label of ‘absconder’.

Aside from all this, the combined opposition is said to have repeatedly failed in challenging the government. The government’s success in getting the FATF-linked bills passed in parliament is seen as the latest in a string of failures on the part of PPP and PML-N.

With each setback, many in his party hoped that the senior Sharif would break his silence. Last December, when senior leaders of the PML-N made a trip to London to pay him a visit, they sought a directive on the burning issue of the PML-N MNAs’ role in amending the Army Act which would decide the fate of COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s extension. A top-level huddle took place at Avenfield, with reports that an oath and vow of secrecy were taken during the meeting between Nawaz and the senior party members.

Yet, even after the crucial decision to support the army chief’s extension was taken, Nawaz made no public comment. It was Shahbaz Sharif who later appeared before journalists outside Avenfield House to explain that the decision was taken ‘in principle’.

Nawaz chose not to speak even when, in July this year, scandal-hit judge Arshad Malik was dismissed for misconduct and a fresh opportunity was created for the party to call for the quashing of former prime minister’s sentence in the Al-Azizia case.

While there is little doubt that Nawaz is the ultimate decision-maker in the party, all political discussions have happened behind closed doors and only with close family members. Many in the family and the party have responded to journalists’ questions about Nawaz’s views on numerous developments by saying that he is focused on his health.

Nawaz’s silence has given wings to many speculations; that an under the table ‘deal’ is being brokered with the Sharif family; that Nawaz’s silence will yield some concessions for him and the members of his party ensnared in NAB cases; that the flurry of arrests and denials of bail for PML-N leaders may come to an end. Yet, even as the arrests and cases showed no signs of abating, the former prime minister continued to stay away from the media spotlight. At most, the cameras only caught him when he drove in and out of his residence occasionally, on his way to the hospital and back. Since the pandemic hit the UK and lockdown was enforced mid-March, those public sightings have become rarer still.

But a change is on the cards.

In a dramatic twist, the party has confirmed that Nawaz will virtually attend Sunday’s (today’s) All Parties Conference hosted by the PPP. Not only will he attend via video link, there is an understanding that he will make a speech before the participants — a majority of whom have not seen or spoken to him in nearly two years. There is a possibility that he may engage with them and respond to questions, spurring speculation about what his speech will entail.

Will it be hard-hitting? Or will he mince his words? Expectations are high after the prolonged silence. Many are framing his APC moment as the embrace of a new era of remote leadership in PML-N’s politics, as it is highly unlikely that he will announce his return.

Ahead of the APC, Maryam tweeted that Nawaz has created a Twitter account for the first time, along with an official Facebook page and YouTube channel — all signals that team Nawaz is preparing for an onslaught. What will happen to those in the party who don’t subscribe to this brand of politics? Perhaps they will be left behind.

The consequences of a politically active and publicly engaged Nawaz Sharif threaten to be grave and varied; the government will use every opportunity to remind voters that Nawaz is absconding from the courts. The prime minister has admitted that he regrets granting him permission to leave for the UK and may make things harder for him. Shahbaz Gill has already hinted at legal action against broadcasters who air Nawaz’s speech. There could be even more cases and trouble for his party members and family as those irked by his re-emergence come at him with a renewed vigour.

But there are few other options. Returning to Pakistan means languishing indefinitely in a jail cell, locked away physically and virtually from supporters who relish in hearing from their leader. To stay politically relevant and inject life into a defeated opposition, it appears the PML-N leader will no longer steer the ship from behind the curtain. Silence has achieved nothing.

Post-APC politics could well be different.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2020