Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) chastening defeat in the Punjab by-polls has forced the party to rethink its strategy and narrative for reviving its political fortunes, and a major leadership reshuffle is expected in the coming days.

PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif has, over the past few days, held extensive consultations with senior party leaders on the reasons behind the Punjab debacle and is said to have concluded that it was the result of the absence of effective leadership and the abandonment of his trademark ‘anti-establishment narrative’.

“The elder Sharif believes that the pro-establishment stance adopted by the party was the kiss of death,” a party leader who had spoken to Nawaz recently, told Dawn.

Read: 'Imran Khan has arrived': Journalists, politicians congratulate PTI on Punjab by-polls

While the leadership reshuffle is expected to take place in coming weeks, there are already hints that the party is shifting gears and trying to reclaim the anti-establishment narrative, which its leaders strongly feel has been successfully taken over by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Nawaz seeks to ‘return party to former glory’; Maryam may be given key leadership role in upcoming reshuffle

Statements by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who was once seen as Nawaz Sharif’s heir apparent, are already pointing to PML-N readying to re-embrace their anti-establishment approach. It is worth noting that Ms Sharif is reportedly poised to get an even more key role in the upcoming reshuffle

In a conversation with Dawn, PML-N leader Muhammad Zubair confirmed that the party would see a return of ‘resistance character’ in its politics.

“We have been at the receiving end for long. This cannot happen anymore,” he said.

Though Nawaz Sharif, after his 2017 ouster from power, kept the party in contention through his strong ‘Mujhe Kyon Nikala’ rhetoric, PML-N remained split between hawks and moderates.

The latter, led by current prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, were of the opinion that the route to return to power corridors lay in reconciling with the security establishment after dropping the confrontational posture.

Observers contend that Punjab has always respected defiance and had empathy for the underdog. However, the province donned pro-establishment colours because of status-quo politicians, who emerged from the non-party elections of 1985, under former dictator Ziaul Haq.

PML-N’s own demons with anti-establishment narratives are due to the fact that its ranks are also made up of a number of politicians who have “benefitted from patronage”.

The Nawaz-League had, by the middle of last year, significantly toned down its anti-establishment rhetoric after moderates prevailed within the party with the stance that prospects of success in 2023 polls depended on mending fences with the military.

Their rationale was based on the widespread perception that Punjab was an overtly pro-establishment province.

The approach apparently paid off much earlier than expected, when PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif succeeded Mr Imran Khan, who was ousted through a vote of no-confidence in National Assembly.

But many now question that logic, especially after Mr Khan, who is said to have risen to power with establishment’s help, made a comeback by bashing US and the establishment.

Where PML-N had used innuendo such as ‘khalai makhlooq’ to refer to the powers that be, Mr Khan invented the phrase “neutrals” to attack the military leadership for its role in politics and used characters like ‘Mr X’ and ‘Mr Y’ to point to the hands involved in meddling.

PML-N leaders say that the battle of narratives not only undermined the party in its Punjab stronghold, but damaged its prospects badly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa as well.

Party leaders from KP have complained to Mr Nawaz Sharif that PM Shehbaz has “outsourced” the party in the province to JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman.

A party leader, while emphasising the gravity of the situation, said it was probably the worst crisis for the PML-N since the Musharraf coup. “There is lot of demoralisation,” he added.

He said that the crisis was two-fold; on one hand they were losing their base to PTI, while on the other hand its supporters were confused about what their party stood for. Moreover, the party fears that it would not have anything to sell to the constituents after the latest economic meltdown.

A party source said that Mr Nawaz Sharif was “deeply worried” and “little convinced” by the various explanations given by the senior leaders for the poor showing in the recent Punjab by-polls.

According to his calculations, the source said, PTI bagged over a million votes against PML-N’s 850,000 in elections in 20 Punjab constituencies.

Nawaz has, therefore, decided to go for leadership reshuffle, which may see Maryam Nawaz being elevated to a more powerful position.

Sitting in London, he still believes Maryam is the next best option to take the “bull by the horns” as long as he is away.

However, Mr Zubair said the party was seeking a “level playing field” ahead of the next elections and a key part of that strategy was to get Nawaz back to Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2022

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