It has been a difficult week for the PML-N. The interview of the party’s president, Shehbaz Sharif, to Geo TV’s Saleem Safi re-ignited the debate over whose narrative is dominating the party’s policy. The reaction to the interview by the party’s own leaders fuelled the controversy even further.
Nawaz Sharif’s strongly-worded and emphatic tweets confirming that his policy against violators of the Constitution remained intact was seen as a response to his younger brother’s interview in which he had advocated a grand national reconciliation between all stakeholders instead of being held hostage to the mistakes of the past. Former prime minister and party’s senior vice president Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s comments on TV that he did not agree with Shehbaz Sharif’s opinions made the situation even more complicated. The entire week saw the party on the ropes, getting a battering in the court of public opinion.
Finally, on Wednesday it struck back. Party spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb delivered a fiery press conference announcing there was only one narrative in the party. She flipped the week’s narrative by saying the real issue facing the country was not what was happening with the PML-N but how the ruling PTI was misgoverning the country. It was a potent, though belated, response from the party and it may force internal party wrangling off the news cycle for now. But is this the long-term answer that the party is looking for?
No, say many party insiders. They see the problem as deeper than a mere difference of opinion — and of approach — between key Sharif family members. What may have started off as such a quasi-harmless difference, is now transforming into a quagmire that can generate seriously adverse repercussions. Which is exactly why some in the party have started to get uncomfortable and restless. They can sense the internal tension building up and they are alarmed that nothing much is being done to lower it, address it, and resolve it.
“Yesterday some of us parliamentarians were discussing this problem and the feedback we are getting from our constituents is disturbing,” remarked a concerned party member. He said almost all those present agreed that their voters had started to despair that PML-N would not be returning to power any time soon. “They are saying we have become ‘unacceptable’ to the establishment and this is shutting all avenues for the party,” he said referring to the response from the constituents.
Nothing could be worse for the electable if the voter thinks a vote for him is a vote gone waste. If such electables in the PML-N are worried about a perception like this taking root in their constituencies, the party leadership may want to sit up and take note. The vocalisation of concern — even though barely audible inside the party at this stage — marks the first step in recognising the existence of a problem that is growing larger with each passing day. There is however a complication — and it has a name: Maryam.
Sections of the party don’t know what to make of her; the government doesn’t know what to make of her; and the establishment doesn’t know what to make of her. She has upended most people’s calculations, disarranged most critics’ assessments, and electrified a support base that was looking rudderless. She is without doubt the most effective political campaigner on the Pakistani political landscape today. PML-N’s genuine mandate, say her supporters, runs through her veins. During the PDM movement, and then subsequently in the campaigns for elections in Gilgit-Baltistan, AJK and all other by-polls, Maryam has shown beyond a shadow of doubt that she can draw crowds like no other. “It was like magic wherever we went with Maryam in Azad Kashmir,” said a PML-N parliamentarian who travelled with her. “Nothing else can describe what we saw.”
Which, in fact, constitutes one aspect of this complication. Popularity paving the way to power is not always a linear equation. The PML-N may love to be popular, but it would love even more to be in power. With elections two years away at the most, the clock is ticking on the party to figure out if the popular narrative is bringing it closer to power or pushing it back further. In the wake of the AJK elections — and before the Sialkot one — the party leadership held a consultative session via Zoom presided over by Nawaz Sharif. In attendance were Shehbaz Sharif as well as most other senior leaders. According to insiders, some people spoke up about how the party’s anti-establishment narrative was hurting its prospects of returning to power. Some back and forth took place on this topic, but no conclusion was reached.
The shock Sialkot defeat a few days later rekindled this disgruntlement. Some people bitterly said that blaming all defeat on rigging was reinforcing a sense of denial within the party’s rank and file. One senior parliamentarian confided after the AJK elections that one of the PML-N candidates who lost admitted there had been no rigging and that he had lost fair and square. He got so irritated by the party reaction that he was on the verge of coming in front of the media to admit no rigging had taken place in his elections. It was only at the last minute that senior party colleagues convinced him to stay quiet.
Something similar happened after the drubbing in Sialkot. A key party leader admitted that PTI had played smart in the constituency. Two key candidates with solid vote banks were persuaded to withdraw in favour of the PTI candidate; targeted money was spent on schemes; the Gujjar/Jatt biradri equation was handled deftly and intelligently by PTI; and finally perhaps, some ‘manipulation’ may have also taken place. Possibly. A PML-N leader said it had rained heavily during the last two hours of polling but despite this the number of votes polled was far too high than plausible. But the party has yet not figured out how to explain this polling bonanza during the last two hours.
A PTI insider has an explanation. “We learnt from our previous by-election defeats in Punjab,” he said while explaining that the Punjab chief minister’s office had remained aloof from the earlier elections because of various disagreements over candidates’ selections etc. “This time in Sialkot the party and the Punjab government worked together,” he said. It helped that the PTI candidate was the son-in-law of Chief Minister Usman Buzdar’s principal secretary. Things got done.
No one knows better than PML-N that things get done when you are in power. And elections get won. Power does wonders for political fortunes, and the lack of it can leave parties and leaders politically dehydrated. Which is why a very large number of very influential constituency politicians in the PML-N are quietly, even silently, hoping that Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif can somehow get their differing approaches to coalesce around a policy that can propel the party back into the race. Hope, though, is not a plan of action.
It is strange that a party with such a large number of leaders is struggling to find effective leadership at this crucial juncture. When you ask PML-N people who is really running the party, they shrug their shoulders. There is confusion over party policy, party direction and party performance. The parliamentary presence of PML-N is ineffectual, lethargic and resigned to a passive approach. Parliamentarians complain about lack of coordination and direction about legislative business. Nobody is shepherding them. It shows.
And not just in the parliament. Some party people have started complaining about neglect in their constituencies. They don’t know whom to turn to. Internal communication has also become a problem. Senior leaders are just not speaking to each other often enough. In fact, one party insider acknowledges — with a thinly disguised sense of anguish — that leaders are now speaking with each other through the media. “Is this what things have come down to?” he asks.
Perhaps. But the party is far from over. It remains a political powerhouse in Punjab and can roar back into the game if it can somehow find the strength to resolve its internal contradictions. “Talk talk, fight fight, that’s what we need to do,” says a party leader, “not just fight fight, or for that matter, just talk talk.”
But for this to happen, someone has to make a policy and take a stand. One stand. Someone has to lead the PML-N.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2021