PML-N in untested waters

Published October 4, 2020
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AGAINST the backdrop of rising political temperatures in the country, what Maulana Fazlur Rehman did could not have been a mere coincidence, as it spoke of the wit the burly leader of the JUI-F is known to possess.

A photograph released on social media showed the maulana wearing trendy shades and an earlobe-to-earlobe smile while seemingly having the time of his life in the ‘shumali ilaqajaat’ (the picturesque northern areas), with lush green mountains and a river running close to him as a backdrop.

Some keen observers suggested the images looked photoshopped, others more familiar with the exact location said it was Neelum Valley in Kashmir. Whatever the case, if there was a political message in that photo, it was funny and witty.

Was it that he was telling his detractors, who he has been attacking with renewed vigour in recent weeks after last month’s formation of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), that he fears nothing the state is likely to throw at him to subdue him, or his committed cadres?

I say this because after the return of SECP official and former journalist Sajid Gondal a few days after his enforced disappearance from near his Islamabad home, he explained his absence by saying he had gone for a little break to the ‘shumali ilaqajaat’ with friends and had forgotten to tell his family.

If large swathes of Punjab are really unhappy with the way they have been left in dire straits, they will respond to the PDM’s call.

Sajid Gondal thus added ‘shumali ilaqajaat’ to the political lexicon of the country, which already included ‘mehakma zara’at’ (agriculture department), ‘naamaloom afraad’ (unknown persons) and ‘fareshtay’ (angels) to refer to the known unknowns that can’t be named in the security state.

Jokes aside, it is clear now that PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has decided to toughen his stance and name those who are seldom named in Pakistan and those he believes derailed a democratically elected government and conspired to oust him, a prime minister, from office.

He remained quiet for months and months, but the dam seems to have burst. Nawaz Sharif does not seem prepared anymore to allow the authorities to leverage his daughter’s presence in Pakistan, and her vulnerability to state persecution, in order to silence him.

Demonstrably, this decision has been taken in conjunction with his daughter and heir apparent Maryam Nawaz. Finally, she is also taking a path she seems more naturally inclined to, rather than staying quiet and waiting endlessly for the appeasers in the party leadership to deliver a level playing field.

If Nawaz Sharif’s address to the PDM meeting was the first indication of his changed strategy, his speech again delivered via video link from London to his party’s apex central working committee (CWC) this week was confirmation that a no-holds-barred policy had now been embraced.

Nawaz Sharif’s detailed address, some of those present in the CWC meeting said, fired up the atmosphere, as he again did not mince his words in blaming those responsible for his party being in the political wilderness rather than in office.

“After Mian Sahib, a number of leaders spoke at length and reiterated their support to the leader and endorsed party policy. Towards the end, Senator Pervaiz Rasheed asked Ahsan Iqbal to give Maryam Nawaz the floor,” one CWC member told me.

“She barely spoke for 15 minutes but emerged larger than life. It was clear to all those present who was the future leader of the party. She spoke with clarity and there appeared no confusion in her mind as to the way forward,” the CWC member, clearly in the Maryam Nawaz camp, added.

Quizzed on the party’s objectives and the strategy in the days to come, a number of PML-N leaders either chose to keep their cards close to their chest or were not sufficiently briefed to speak with certainty, preferring to stick to generalities.

However, one thing emerged from all the conversations. They are expecting a serious upping of the ante during this month, as a number of rallies and public meetings are planned. To me, this plan appears designed to test the level of public support.

If large swathes of Punjab — and let there be no mistaking that, this time round, it is planned that Punjab will be in the vanguard of the opposition movement — are really unhappy with the way they have been left in dire straits by those in power, as the PML-N believes to be the case, they will respond to the PDM’s call.

Nobody has ever doubted the PML-N’s electoral strength in Punjab. It took weeks of planning, dirty tricks and manoeuvres to take away the province from it in 2018. But to stretch that argument to suggest that people will brave a state backlash and take to the streets in droves seems like high-stakes poker, going for broke, does it not?

Even the most optimistic of political strategists would say that the expectation of popular response in the streets, especially in the face of the power the state can unleash, is at best venturing into uncharted territory.

A senior PML-N leader conceded that the biggest challenge would be for the top leadership, Maryam Nawaz in particular, to avoid being arrested for now: “If she is arrested, some of us fear it will be a serious setback to the party. She is the one who is the best placed among us to motivate supporters.”

The PML-N may be heading into untested waters of street politics amid more questions than answers about its strategy, but even then its threat is being taken seriously. In fact, there are signs of frayed nerves, and one does not have to look hard to see those signs.

The leak about PML-N leader Mohammad Zubair’s two meetings with the COAS, which the media has been told not to discuss anymore, and the prime minister’s latest allegation that Nawaz Sharif is serving Indian objectives are reactions that seem rooted in nerves.

Perhaps those in power know more about the unfolding scenario than the rest of us.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2020


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