Up the escalation ladder?

Published October 18, 2020
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE dam has burst. And how. In a matter of four weeks, shelving nearly three years of silence, Nawaz Sharif has raced up the escalation ladder in naming individuals and institutions he believes are to blame for undermining democracy and the Constitution in the country.

Sharif’s been here before. But then agreed to stay quiet for a period of time. The current phase of his journey started last month. Sunday, Sept 20 to be precise. His address to the first joint meeting of the opposition that led to the birth of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) marked its start.

It also represented a watershed moment in Pakistani politics as, for the first time in recent history, he identified the elephant in the room and was quite open about who was responsible for the state of affairs in the country as a result of transgressions of the Constitution and the law.

Confirmation of where he was headed came when he spoke to PML-N’s apex Central Working Committee at the beginning of October where it became abundantly clear that the doves, the ‘dealophiles’ in the PML-N led by Shehbaz Sharif, had lost out to the hawks.

From the moment he seemed to say enough is enough, there was hardly any doubt about Sharif’s direction. The PML-N citadel Gujranwala’s public meeting not just reinforced that but also showed he was upping the ante, throwing down the gauntlet. He shed euphemisms, and was blunt and direct.

Of late there have been signs that are new to Punjab politics, such as the response to the Sharif address at the PDM founding meeting.

Those of us who heard him live were dumbstruck at how direct he chose to be. He was signalling unambiguously that he was not prepared to listen to those in his party who still favoured seeking accommodation with the all-potent power brokers in the country.

With Shehbaz Sharif incarcerated, I doubt any notable dove has what it takes to stand up to the father-daughter duo’s belligerence. Obviously then, the question is where does this defiance, this confrontational politics, lead to. There is no clarity about that.

Informed journalists in the media are clueless, playing it safe. I may be less informed than them but fall in the play-safe category. Hence, the cautious reporting which saw certain key elements of the Sharif Gujranwala address not quoted verbatim. He named names, we didn’t. Old habits die hard.

Frankly, the intangibles and imponderables abound, making any analysis a bigger occupational hazard than normal. Even then it would be useful to identify some of these factors and try and assign some weightage to them where possible.

The first and foremost is, of course, this sort of public defiance has rarely been witnessed in Punjab. The hawks in the PML-N are at pains to explain that Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif are taking their cue from their electorate and its anger at the state of affairs not vice versa.

Caution dictates that this claim is taken with a pinch of salt. However, of late there have been signs that are new to Punjab politics such as the response to the Sharif address at the PDM founding meeting which, those with their ears to the ground suggest, was very well received by the support base.

Before that, in August, when Maryam Nawaz Sharif was summoned by NAB Lahore and arrived at the controversial organisation’s fortified offices, her angry supporters insisted on accompanying her and clashed with the police deputed there.

Sources say she was sent a message by a very powerful figure in Islamabad to return home and who assured her nothing would become of the NAB notice and her ‘non-appearance’. And that is what seems to have happened. Two months later, nobody has heard anything of that notice again.

Rarely in the past has the political worker in Punjab displayed militant tendencies with the exception of some, not widespread, defiance in the final days of the life of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and then token resistance in August 1986 after Benazir Bhutto’s return in April that year.

The Gujranwala PDM rally brought a rush of memories from my childhood when my father, an army officer, was posted at different times in Kharian and Jhelum. He used to say so many of his fellow officers and other ranks came from that very area.

The places I frequently heard of were Jhelum, Pind Dadan Khan, Chakwal and then the swing of the pendulum (pinned to the north of Gujjar Khan) downwards from west to east, crisscrossing GT Road. Even as a child it was not difficult to fathom that the area was the recruiting belt for the army.

Safe to assume that the opposition public meeting was attended by supporters from this belt in sizeable numbers. And if that was indeed the case are there any implications of that on where Sharif’s defiant politics seems headed?

Sharifs have ruled the roost in Punjab for long and have carved out a huge constituency in the province. How will the law-and-order machinery react in the event of public protests, if indeed the people, said to be desperate due to rampant inflation, respond to the PML-N and take to the streets?

These are some of the questions that need to be answered before any attempt at saying where things might be headed. As the mainstream media has been largely tamed, social media remains a vehicle for the opposition to mobilise support. But now curbs are being planned on all social media platforms.

How will this impact on any possible political movement? Can the momentum provided by Gujranwala be sustained? Is Sharif taking a path which will lead to more state oppression and suppression of rights, or will he succeed in carving out some breathing room for the opposition that will eventually lead to change?

What is clear as we speak is that the PTI’s public response to the PDM threat may be grossly over the top; it has astutely drawn in its backers ever closer to itself and is identifying itself with them. It’ll be interesting to see if the backers’ silence suggests continued, unified acquiescence.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.


Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2020


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