IT is difficult to count how many times PML-N leaders from different tiers of the party have flown to London in recent months presumably in business or first class, but it’s not difficult to say that the amount spent on these visits would have fed dozens if not hundreds of struggling families in inflation-crippled Pakistan.
For its part, the party could argue that its supreme leader Nawaz Sharif did not choose to go abroad but that his hand was forced by circumstances created by the sordid political engineering projects our blighted land is forced to endure far too often than is healthy.
The party could also argue that it was removed from office at the height of its popularity, when all economic indicators were pointed northwards, and that since then, everything in the realm of the economy has gone pear-shaped. Predictably, it would blame the PTI for the current crisis.
What it won’t do is to acknowledge that while its finance minister Ishaq Dar’s policies may have kept inflation and the exchange rate under control, and even allowed a reasonable growth rate, these policies, at the same time, created a current account deficit which would offset the high growth dividend.
Nawaz Sharif is aware that millions of people whose lives have been destroyed by inflation will blame the PDM government for their pain.
It is unlikely to admit that after the vote of no-confidence removed the PTI government from power and the PML-N-led PDM coalition was ushered into government, finance minister Miftah Ismail moved very quickly to re-establish a dialogue for the restoration of the IMF programme.
As we speak, it can’t be said with certainty whether it was the PTI’s ‘scorched earth’ policy — that included unilaterally reneging on the IMF agreement — in its final weeks in office, when it knew the end was near, that caused more harm to the economy or the PML-N’s ‘family first’ policy — whereby Miftah Ismail was replaced by Ishaq Dar.
Mr Dar came into office pledging a robust approach in negotiations with the IMF and implied Mr Ismail was way too meek. He famously said “aankhon mein aankhein daal kar baat karni chahiyye’ [look them in the eye and negotiate]”. It took him several months to lose the staring match.
Only Mr Dar may be privy to why this process was dragged out for so long; what each and every one of us knows is that the delay cost the country dearly.
To be fair, the PML-N or PDM could not have anticipated or controlled the huge rise in global energy prices following the Ukraine conflict. But the Dar procrastination meant that any steps to mitigate the crisis were months, and not weeks, in coming. This may explain some of the London back and forth, as the party rather desperately tries to formulate and build a ‘narrative’ or campaign strategy/ slogans that will enable it to win back its support base at least in Punjab.
Having been in politics for four decades, Nawaz Sharif knows all is not well. He’d also be aware that millions of people whose lives have been destroyed by unprecedented inflation and a moribund economy will blame the last government in power for their pain.
Given the challenges of their day-to-day existence, I doubt whether anyone will remember how bad or good life was under the PTI. They are more likely to be informed by their horrendous present and blame the PDM and the caretaker governments, because many see the latter as a continuation of the former.
That both the caretakers and the PDM government are/were backed by the establishment would also reinforce this perception. Of course, the perception has also much to do with the systematic demonisation of the PML-N and PPP as part of the last political engineering project.
As the political engineers are finding out, once embedded in the minds of the people, including in their own ranks, such perceptions are not easily erased, or even prised out by force. This has created a dilemma for Nawaz Sharif more than it has for the establishment.
While the establishment may think it can ‘shock and awe’ its way to its desired objective, and the younger brother may be content with riding back into power on its coattails, the elder knows a thing or two about electoral politics and also how much faith he can place in factors other than the voters.
Therefore, he knows the importance of a credible strategy to win back the political capital the party believes it has lost since the vote of no-confidence a bare 17 months ago. Whereas his October 2020 Gujranwala rally address, that named generals Bajwa and Faiz for undermining democracy, had found considerable traction among central Punjab voters in particular and buoyed his popularity, some three years later the shoe is on the other foot.
Even incarcerated, Imran Khan now owns that narrative. It may well be certain that Imran Khan won’t be allowed to run in the elections, let alone win them, it is also clear Nawaz Sharif will know that it is not all his for the taking till he has a roadmap and a credible winning strategy for each step of the way to the January elections. (I’m sticking my neck out and saying they’ll happen in January.)
The PML-N will also know that it can push just that far and no further, particularly when a sympathetic military leadership is seen as helping it pave its way back to power. Can Mr Sharif push for accountability of generals, notably the most recent former army chief, and risk creating a sentiment within the establishment that it upends or flips the whole chessboard?
One factor is going in his favour (but he’ll have to calibrate exactly to what extent) is that it is not as if the establishment has several choices. It, too, is caught in a vice-like grip and will perhaps step back and not react to this rhetoric. While it remains mere rhetoric that is.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, September 24rd, 2023