Is the party really over? The ousted prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s march from Islamabad to Lahore via GT Road spread over three days was an attempt to convince his own workers as well as the rest of the country that it isn’t over yet. He came on the road after having put in place a prime minister who doesn’t belong to the Sharif family and helping him choose a cabinet whose sheer size guarantees that it would last beyond the NA-120 result.
But are the workers of the PML-N and the rest of the country convinced the party’s future and integrity is intact. Soon after the Supreme Court ruled against the first family, declaring the prime minister and his children along with others disqualified to hold a public office, analysts were quick to predict the party is now going to fragment, with more members driven to whatever king’s party it was going to be replaced with. They shouldn’t be blamed for they had the benefit of hindsight to think so, but a couple of weeks down, many of these analysts have been proved wrong.
The political challenges may still be there but, for now, the party stands united behind the de facto party president, even though an acting president has already been nominated. As Sharif and his family begin facing the cases now being heard by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a review petition has been duly submitted before the Supreme Court and Kulsoom Nawaz, the only untainted family member in the house of Nawaz Sharif, has filed her nomination papers for NA-120.
Sounds too early to write an obituary for the party but which way is it headed and what lends it strength are legitimate questions to ask. But before that, what is the perception about the elder Sharif’s GT Road march and what did it achieve? Senior analyst Arif Nizami thinks it was “a mixed bag” and the aim of the march was “partly to boost the morale of their workers in what is deemed to be an election year”.
The show in Rawalpindi was dismal but according to Nizami “Gujrat and beyond, till Lahore, was fine. The crowd was much better in Gujranwala and Lahore.”
“But remember this is not a grassroots party. When Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif returned to the country during Musharraf’s time, there weren’t many people out to receive them,” says Nizami, adding the real challenge for them is to keep the party intact and “they have been somewhat successful in keeping it together in the first phase”.
If one tries to judge which way the party is headed from Nawaz Sharif’s speeches during the march, the content, too, was a mixed, or rather confused, bag. There couldn’t have been a more ironic statement than his calls for speedy or ‘90-day’ justice because that’s exactly what he claims to be a victim of. His supporters could interpret it as a sign of his consistency because that’s what he has been demanding (and providing too in the form of anti-terrorism courts or, as some might say, extrajudicial executions etc.) since the 1990s.
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He was consistent in calling for economic progress, employment, roads, electricity, cheap housing for the poor, things that he has been harping on as the prime minister in the last four years. What was new in these speeches was his dig at ‘institutions’ that oust elected prime ministers and have been doing so for 70 years, and his demands to rectify the ‘system’ and the constitution.
A leader of a right-leaning party from Punjab talking about the injustices meted out to East Pakistan and Balochistan — certainly a new narrative from a newly converted ‘ideological’ leader.
So, are there any takers for this ideological swing among analysts specialising on Punjab? Tahir Mehdi calls it a “reverse evolution”. “Having evolved out of the military’s lap, now fighting with the establishment, the PML-N is trying to do populist politics now,” says Mehdi.
Having said that, Mehdi has strong reasons to believe why the PML-N’s chances to survive are good. “Actually the vested interest of the Punjabi civil elite is so strong, substantial and mature that the party is going to survive on that momentum alone. For quite some time, the military elite’s vested interest in society had primacy in this country and the civilians only tagged along; but not any more. Now the Punjabi elite wants its share even in foreign policy. Earlier on, there was a clear imbalance; now there is a tussle.”
The Punjabi elite’s stakes are huge. “There is no manufacturing no doubt but they dominate trading. If the Wagah border is open for trade, albeit carefully, the Punjabi trader stands to benefit. The biggest investment opportunity, housing, is monopolised by the military but then there also are Malik Riaz and others who have a sizeable interest,” says Mehdi.
The party is aware of these strengths and its ability to strike back. Nizami thinks that unless the PML-N goes too far in its fight with the establishment, “there is not too formidable a challenge. General Bajwa has said the military would follow the constitution. The party being in power at the Centre and Punjab wants to give this impression that while they are in power, they are also in opposition.” This is an advantageous position, no doubt, and in the words of Nizami they want “to prolong it as long as they can”.
There still are people who think the party won’t survive if the house of Sharif is ousted from politics. In the opinion of Tahir Mehdi, Nawaz Sharif “as an individual dynast articulates the Punjabi elite’s interest. The momentum of this interest is such that Nawaz Sharif is indispensable”.
He admits there may be some hiccups in the way “but in the process new leadership will emerge and it will become a party. The establishment which till now would physically eliminate individuals cannot do that because this party represents Punjab’s biggest interest”.
Nizami concurs that the chances of military takeover are minimal because the army has taken this “strategic decision that it will not overtly rule, something called the Kayani Doctrine, unless the situation becomes too unstable”.
Following this analysis, the PML-N looks formidable because the PTI is a second-line contender for power and the PPP is nowhere on the scene in Punjab which is crucial in government-formation at the centre. The meager chance the PPP has in South Punjab is preempted by the PML-N, as Mehdi says, “by having six ministers from South Punjab in the federal cabinet”. Besides, he says, the PPP used to represent labour, peasants, trade unionists and the left but “in patronage politics, they can’t beat the PML-N in Punjab”.
The party still looks less invincible than it did last year before the Panama Papers leaks. In a federation that is run through some form of procedural democracy, the political outcomes contingent on one big province creates an imbalance. And that works to the benefit of the PML-N for now.