LAHORE: After experiencing the bitter taste of defeat at the hands of the PTI multiple times, the PML-N leadership is now searching for a ‘narrative’ to counter Imran Khan, especially in light of upcoming elections in Punjab following the dissolution of the provincial assembly.

This time PML-N supreme leader Nawaz Sharif is the man in charge. For this purpose, the three-time prime minister has tasked some senior party leaders to start working on framing a ‘complete chargesheet’ on Imran Khan and those of his facilitators in the establishment (a former army chief and two ex-spy chiefs) and the judiciary (a former chief justice) so that the entire party could target them in unison during the election campaign, a cabinet member told Dawn on Sunday.

There has been a strong realisation in the party that its ‘popular narrative’ — respect the vote (vote ko izzat do) — is needed to be recrafted to match with Mr Khan’s narrative of ‘not kneeling down’ before the ‘foreign masters’ and the establishment.

The PML-N needs a refurbished narrative because attempts to malign the PTI chairman through Toshakhana or audio leaks have not borne fruit so far. At the same time, the PML-N members eyeing Punjab elections within a few months are also worried about the rising popularity of the former prime minister.

Maryam Nawaz to return to Pakistan soon, will lead party into Punjab elections

Leadership crisis

But this is not the only battle PML-N is faced with. The leadership crisis in Punjab has become a major concern for those aspiring to contest the next election on the PML-N ticket. Although the party is being “controlled from London”, local party leaders want Nawaz Sharif to return and lead the election campaign.

Following the dissolution of the Punjab Assembly last week, almost everyone in the PML-N in the province is asking the same question: whether Nawaz Sharif will return to counter Imran Khan or Maryam Nawaz, now the chief organiser of the party, will spearhead the campaign, again.

The PML-N leaders are wary of the party’s poor performance, especially in the July by-polls, under Maryam Nawaz, and they want elder Sharif among them to bolster their chances of electoral success.

The PML-N spokesperson and federal information minister, Marriyum Aurangzeb, confirmed that Ms Nawaz is returning from London later this month, but she remained non-committal about the homecoming of elder Sharif ahead of Punjab and possible KP elections.

A party insider told Dawn that Ms Nawaz upon her arrival would start a “fresh campaign targeting [Imran] Khan and his facilitators” in light of the ‘new narrative’ being framed by the senior party leaders.

Ms Nawaz would also build a mass-contact campaign and mobilise party workers for the ‘historic’ welcome of Mr Sharif if he decides to come before the elections in KP and Punjab.

“The PML-N legal brains are already working on securing court relief for the deposed premier in the Al-Azizia case in which he was handed down seven-year imprisonment. The sentence was suspended by the high court following Mr Sharif’s departure to the United Kingdom on ‘medical grounds’ for a four-week bail,” the party insider added.

As the Islamabad High Court acquitted Maryam Nawaz in the Avenfield corruption case a few months ago, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has a similar hope for Nawaz Sharif in the Al-Azizia reference.

Speaking about the narrative being framed by party leaders, PM’s aide Malik Ahmad Khan told Dawn that the narrative building of PML-N was a prerogative of party supremo Nawaz Sharif.

“Soon the party narrative crafted by the supreme leader will make waves across Pakistan for the promotion of constitutionalism and ‘vote ko izzat do’,” the PM’s aide added. “This narrative will counter Imran Khan ahead of the next polls,” he added.

To a question about the leadership crisis in the party, the PM’s aide said: “PML-N is not facing a leadership crisis in Punjab. Mr Sharif will return to spearhead the election campaign and defeat Imran Khan in the political arena,” he claimed.

When asked whether the party’s supreme leader would return ahead of Punjab and KP polls, the premier’s assistant did not rule out the possibility of Nawaz Sharif’s return ahead of Punjab and KP elections.

The stated position of the PML-N on the matter is that Mr Sharif who has been living in the UK since 2019 in ‘self-imposed exile’ will return ahead of general elections to lead the party’s campaign.

However, in addition to taking on Imran Khan in the political arena, there has been no let-up in PML-N’s efforts to get the PTI chairman disqualified from taking part in elections.

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2023

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