Nawaz Sharif has spoken again. In his second video appearance, the former prime minister and leader of the PML-N addressed his party’s central executive committee and barrelled ahead with the same aggressive tone that he had used in his speech at the multiparty conference earlier in the month. His Wednesday’s remarks have confirmed that he has decided on the direction of his party’s politics for the time being. Sparks will continue to fly.
These sparks, however, denote more than just the beginning of confrontational politics; they provide a hint that something larger is patterning itself on our landscape. A shift has happened. Nawaz Sharif’s speeches are an effect, not a cause, of this randomly deliberate change unfurling before our eyes.
The key aspect of this change is an organically processed realignment of political war fronts. The pre-MPC fronts looked something like this: PTI vs. PML-N; PTI vs. PPP; PTI vs. JUI-F; and (most importantly) PTI vs. PTI.
These were simple equations that reflected two key realities. One, the opposition parties were willing to bargain for space with the establishment without rocking the boat (this is why PML-N and PPP had stayed away from JUI-F’s march to Islamabad last year). Two, with the opposition grappling with its internal confusion and contradictions, PTI had started locking horns with itself over governance troubles. The sum total of this situation was thus: pliant opposition, incompetent government, and an establishment beyond the reach of critique.
The post-MPC fronts look something like this: PTI vs. PDM; and PML-N vs. Establishment.
The new equation has complicated matters. Inside the Red Zone today there exists an element of dread that comes with the warning shots of an impending conflict. The early signs of this conflict have already become visible — stepped up accountability process with new summons, notices and NAB cases, arrest of opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif and possibilities of further incarcerations, return of Nawaz Sharif to an active political role with weaponised rhetoric, and the announcement of PDM’s protest schedule starting with a jalsa in Quetta.
But the undercurrents are more ominous. The opposition’s grand PDM alliance is now under the heavy influence of two hawks: Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Both also have a good equation with each other. During the discussions on FATF between the treasury and opposition benches inside the parliament, Maulana Fazlur Rehman kept a direct contact with Nawaz Sharif who in turn used to tell his senior party colleagues in the parliament to carry JUI-F with them in all decisions. At one point when the PML-N and PPP delegations met the government team and agreed to certain drafts without consulting JUI-F, the maulana had called Nawaz Sharif late at night to complain. As a result, the PML-N team got an earful from their leader.
Nawaz has constituency and parliamentary numbers and the maulana commands street numbers. It is a potent combination when loaded with weaponised rhetoric. This potency will be tested in October as the PDM fires up its anti-PTI campaign in all provincial capitals. Two things will be of note in these rallies: one, are the speeches calibrated on a singular theme; two, how closely is this theme attuned to Nawaz Sharif’s position. Both these aspects will help determine which of the two new war fronts is the primary one: PDM vs. PTI or PML-N vs. Establishment.
PTI leaders hope it is the latter. But the more politically savvy ones in the federal cabinet also dread it. They have good reason to. If the PDM vs. PTI equation becomes the primary one, the framing of the fight will remain confined to governance and accountability issues. But if the PML-N vs. Establishment equation jumps to fore, the framing will expand to include the real sizzler: legitimacy.
Is this really a sizzler? In terms of clear and present danger to the existence of the PTI government, it is not. But this much even opposition leaders acknowledge: they are in no position to bring about the downfall of the government at this stage unless they resort to collective resignations. This, however, is the last card — if one — and the opposition is unlikely to play it so early in the conflict. On the other hand, the issue of legitimacy — if presented and established effectively — can become the core of the opposition’s narrative for the 2023 general elections.
Too vague? Not if you consider the legitimacy under question is that of the entire process which produced the system that holds the reins of power in Pakistan after the 2018 elections. Hawks within the opposition believe legitimising this process will make it easy to repeat it in 2023. Therefore, the real issue, they say, is not what the PTI government is doing today but how it became the government in the first place.
Their logic: in order to save 2023, you have to discredit 2018.
This is risky stuff. More so when the key proponent is vulnerable to severe legal consequences as a result of staying put in London. The strong remarks made by the Islamabad High Court on Wednesday against Nawaz’s absence were a reflection of hardening attitudes that can create problems of a long-term nature.
This is also risky stuff in the context of a blowback. PML-N has displayed remarkable resilience in the face of relentless pressure these last few years. The fact that it is still intact, and holding on to its core in Punjab, is a testament to the strength of its political roots.
But the new aggressive tone will have many quiet detractors within the party itself. They may have been cowed into silence after Shahbaz Sharif’s arrest, but silence is not necessarily acquiescence.
Their logic: in order to save 2023, you have to leverage 2018.
As the drums of war begin to beat, the warring sides are far from certain where this conflict may be heading. Uncertainty can project weakness, but in the hands of an able commander, it can also become a weapon of choice.
It all begins today. Welcome to October.
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2020