RED ZONE FILES: Darkness at Noon

Published May 27, 2021
This combo photo shows PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif (left), Vice President Maryam Nawaz (middle) and former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. — Photos AFP/APP
This combo photo shows PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif (left), Vice President Maryam Nawaz (middle) and former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. — Photos AFP/APP

Something very strange and alarming is happening inside the PML-N. The party that has reigned over the country three times and believes it is the most popular outfit today, is taking vicarious and delicious pleasure in cutting its nose to spite its face.

“It is absolutely bizarre,” says a party in­­sider who is watching with horror his leaders wrestling with each other in full glare of the public. The famed ‘dual narrative’ with­­in the PML-N has now bubbled to the surf­ace and is turning toxic. The party is making a spectacle of itself and the PTI government is loving it. What more could they want than to see PPP cross swords with PML-N and PML-N cross swords with PML-N.

Editorial: The PML-N’s duality is sowing the seeds of confusion within its rank and file

It all went south when party president and leader of the opposition Shehbaz Sharif hosted a dinner for parliamentarians of the opposition and specially invited the PPP leadership. The dinner created some bonhomie and generated good optics for a better working relationship between the two estranged parties. Was this event an attempt to revitalise the dysfunctional and conflict-ridden alliance PDM? No one said so. However the very next morning, PML-N vice president Shahid Khaqan Abbasi spoke to the media and said the doors of the PDM were closed for the PPP unless they replied to the show cause notice issued to them earlier by the PDM. His tone was curt, even harsh. Had he snubbed the initiative of his party president? The feel-good optics of the previous evening evaporated in a puff of smoke. Later in the day, Maryam Nawaz Sharif reinforced what Abbasi had said, thereby erasing all doubts if any existed about the duality tearing away at the party seams.

Wednesday was a sobering day for the PML-N. There was a pall of gloom hanging over many senior people in the party. They had realised the disaster that was befalling them in slow motion since the public spat between their top leaders. Few had any explanations to give. Were key people in the party unhappy at the dinner hosted by Shehbaz Sharif? Were they ticked off at him for reaching out to the PPP when many others in the party were blaming them for ditching the PDM and ‘stealing’ the position of the leader of the opposition in the senate? If so, why did Shahid Abbasi have to give a public statement against the PPP the very next morning after attending the dinner hosted by Shehbaz? Party insiders acknowledged they too were shocked at how these developments had unfolded in the open instead of behind closed doors.

Panic stricken, the party is now rushing to do some damage control. According to senior insiders, urgent consultations have taken place and there may be an important virtual meeting between the most important stakeholders in the party in a day or two in order to figure out how to stop shedding each other’s political blood. “The silence about this infighting is becoming criminal,” says a dismayed party representative. “Good luck to us if we carry on like this and then expect to win the next election,” he laments.

He may not be all that wrong. The party may agree in the next few days to be more discreet in its internal issues, and be more circumspect when it comes to mutual disagreements, but that will not solve the problem that is gnawing away at the party insides for many years now.

If today someone were to ask: “What does the PML-N really want”? Not many people in the party may have the answer. The party is well and truly riven by doubt, division and discord.

This doubt, division and discord reflects in the following issues:

1. PDM: The original purpose of the alliance, as forged by Maryam Nawaz, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was to send the PTI government packing through a phased plan of action. The movement took a sharp anti-establishment turn after Nawaz Sharif trained his guns at the ‘selectors’. Other leaders were uncomfortable with this approach. More importantly, senior people within the PML-N itself squirmed with discomfort but had to follow their leader’s policy. The duality within the party did not disappear — it was suppressed into silence. The role of the PDM, the relationship with the PPP via the PDM, and the future of the PDM – all this continues to divide the party. Duality has snared back to life.

2.PUNJAB: There is a strong body of opinion that believes the PML-N should seriously consider leading an in-house change in Punjab. This school of thought believes that if the party can manage to claw its way back into power in its base, it can secure the next general election with greater ease. However, the other school of thought reacts viscerally to this option. It believes the party must not – ever – become part of the ‘hybrid’ system. Such is the intensity of duality that no serious discussion about the pros and cons of this issue has taken place at the top level. People are hunkered down and bunkered down inside the high walls of their duality.

3. ESTABLISHMENT: The root cause of the duality appears to be taking further root. At a time when elections are two years away and the party needs to figure out how to position itself for maximum advantage, there is rank confusion about how it wants to deal with the elephant in the room. Would it be prudent for the party to fight the election by further fuelling its anti-establishment position and framing its ideology in civil-military terms? Or would it make sense for the PML-N to re-construct a working relationship with the establishment before the elections so it can manage a level-playing field and cash in its popularity? The duality of approach is growing wider by the day while the time to unify the duality is slipping away by the day.

The PML-N train may have more bogeys than all the other parties, but its engine doesn’t know which track to travel on. It is whistling shrilly and belching smoke while standing stationary at the platform and refusing to go anywhere. Adamancy generates passion, not momentum.

Tuesday’s disaster reflected the hardening of duality and the shrinking of mutual tolerance within the party. It also forced reluctant party insiders to ask themselves a question they had never wished upon themselves: “Who is in charge of the PML-N”. The leadership cannot delay the answer any longer because the duality that at one time created creative tension in internal meetings is now wreaking public discord and rupturing the fabric of the party from the insides.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2021

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