• Asif says party battling anger over inflated power bills • Iqbal attributes current crisis to 2018 ‘crash-landing’
• Insiders admit Sharif bros’ continued presence in UK ‘not good for optics’

LONDON: As the party leading the former coalition government that made certain decisions whose impacts have recently come to the fore — chief among them being a nationwide fury over inflated power bills — the PML-N has been facing the brunt of public anger in Pakistan.

Veteran politician and senior N-leaguer Khawaja Asif tells Dawn: “We are in our constituencies daily. We are facing it [the public anger at rising costs] head on. We are arguing with people, presenting our point of view and countering the criticism — we are not taking a holiday or using proxies to confront people on our behalf. We are in the field. However good or bad the situation is, we are facing it.”

But the job of battling anger over the ongoing cost of living and economic crises in the country is coming to a head. Their erstwhile allies have all, in one way or another, distanced themselves from the measures taken by the previous PDM government in its final days in an attempt to align themselves with public sentiment.

Mr Asif admits that the situation is grave and worrisome, both economically and politically, but his party has weathered storms before. “In the past, we have survived the rivalry with the PPP, we have lived through the Musharraf era… yes people are criticising us. But we are addressing their grievances. And we can absolutely recover from this situation if given a chance.”

But his colleagues don’t all agree. Several N-leaguers in Pakistan feel the presence of the party’s top leadership in London is bad for optics. Shehbaz Sharif arrived in London soon after the caretaker set-up took office, and the elder Sharif and key decision-maker in the party, Nawaz, has been camped here since 2019.

One prominent party member Dawn spoke to said: “I saw a picture of Mian sb, Shehbaz sb with Governor Tessori in London, and I thought to myself: which genius released this?”

The politician feels drawing attention to the party leadership’s departure from the country is ill-advised, and that as the recent former prime minister and party leader, Mr Shehbaz should return fast.

“They have to come here and explain to people why they are facing these difficulties today. It is not a responsible thing to do to leave the country at this point. We [the Pakistan leadership] are here speaking about what we achieved in a limited timeframe. They should too. One can’t close their eyes like a kabootar,” the leader said, requesting anonymity.

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi agrees that the top leadership should be facing questions back home.

“We were in the government for 16 months, we have to inform the people of what our performance was, why we did not resolve issues people are facing today. We cannot divorce our self from reality. If we do not answer people’s questions today, then they will give us the answer at the ballot box — it is imperative to engage.”

Although he has also been in the UK in recent weeks, former finance minister Ishaq Dar told Dawn he was en route to Pakistan when contacted for comment for this report. In his recent engagement with the press here, Mr Dar was asked multiple questions by reporters on rising costs and currency depreciation, but he simply replied with: “the party paid a political price to save Pakistan from default”.

Election narrative

Though there are a handful of leaders who concede there is no clear direction from the top on the party’s election narrative in the coming months, senior party members are clear that their proven track record will see them through the storm.

“The basic question we should ask people is: in 2018 when Pakistan was taking off, who forced us to crash-land?” Ahsan Iqbal asks, rhetorically.

“The roots of our current predicament are not in the last 16 months, but in that 2018 crash. If you are falling downhill, and if you apply the brakes to decrease the speed, you will still fall. If we hadn’t taken over, Pakistan would have externally defaulted thanks to the IMF agreements Imran Khan had bound us to.”

Khawaja Asif said he was confident Nawaz Sharif will return to Pakistan in October, as he was standing next to his brother Shahbaz when the announcement was made in a press conference at Stanhope House.

“Of course, we have to own the costs, prices and liabilities of the past year,” he said. “We made a choice [to govern] and not call elections then. Maybe after some time passes, one can debate whether it was worth it.”

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2023

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