How will he navigate the choppy waters?
Nawaz Sharif, is he really the simpleton he is sometimes portrayed to be in the media? After all, he has been in the business of politics now for almost three decades.
Barring nine years of Musharraf’s dictatorship, the Sharifs have enjoyed the perks and privileges of power. Even during the Musharraf interlude, after cutting a deal with him, they were the lucky recipients of the lavish hospitality of their Saudi hosts and mentors.
Naturally being the second largest political machine in the country and remaining in power for an extended period requires more brains than brawn. Granted the PML(N) supremo has been luckier than others, but he deserves full marks for playing his cards right nonetheless.
Like all good things in life, even luck runs out. After trouncing the PPP in its citadel of Punjab, the PML(N) is facing a formidable challenge from Imran Khan’s growing popularity in the province.
After wallowing in luxury during his exile, first at Suroor palace in Jeddah and later at his expensive apartment in London’s exclusive Park Lane, Sharif is somehow losing his magic touch. He likes to spend more time in London, Frankfurt, Dubai or Singapore or at his Raiwind palace, rather than interacting with his party men or women back home.
According to Sharif, even if ten prime ministers are sacrificed at the altar of rule of law, it is a small price to pay. It’s another matter that if these prime ministers belonged to the PML(N), the party leadership might not have hesitated in sending such an assertive Supreme Court packing. “Intoxicated with its own independence”, even before such an eventuality arose.
For the first time, Nawaz has declared his intention to consult parties outside the parliament for the purpose of forming a consensual caretaker government to hold fair and free elections. This could be construed as an olive branch to his nemesis, the PTI chief.
But the mixed signals emanating from the party continue. It’s a bit confusing. At the same day the PML(N) supremo spoke to the media, his leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, Ch Nisar Ali, declared in his usual acerbic style that PTI was a test tube baby of the former ISI chief, General Shuja Pasha. Nisar also warned Imran that those who live in glass houses should not fling stones at others.
True. But who is not living in a glass house? The Zardari-led PPP, the PTI or for that matter the PML(N) itself? It is true that, today, Nawaz is positioning himself as anti-establishment. But how can he deny that he himself is a test tube baby of the late discredited dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.
Notwithstanding Mehrangate (that provided the financial base for the IJI - the so called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad), it must be conceded that over the years the PML(N) has come into its own. Through hard work and sheer political savvy in filling the slot of the formidable anti-PPP vote, the party has come to stay. Especially in Punjab where - till now - it has enjoyed a commanding position.
Nawaz being anti-establishment was not always the case. He was the pivotal part of the anti-PPP alliance sewed and stitched by the ISI. It is a sad commentary on the apex court that it has not shown the same alacrity in disposing of Asghar Khan’s petition on the matter as it has done in petitions against Zardari and his cohorts.
In a similar vein, the PML(N) should concede the response Imran is getting across the country is not ISI-sponsored. If intelligence agencies could prop up political parties with large crowds, Musharraf would have succeeded in making the PML(Q) win the 2008 elections and the PPP and PML(N) leadership would still be in exile.
Both the PML(N) and the PPP should ponder over the Imran Khan phenomenon. The PTI chief portrays himself as an agent of change. He is probably not. But, certainly, he is emerging as a third alternative for the voters.
The PPP might draw pleasure from the PML(N) leadership’s obvious discomfort with PTI’s growing popularity. It might not translate much into seats to dislodge the incumbents, but would certainly play the spoiler’s role.
The reason why Nawaz is trying to doff the mantle of a friendly opposition and demanding early elections is the underlying fear of Imran. The PTI needs time to reorganise its disparate party machine and woo phenomenal number of first-time young voters. It is for this reason that it is not vociferous in demanding immediate polls.
The PPP, on the other hand, knows that going by its performance of the past four and a half years in government, it is going to face a tough time at the hustings. However, it feels that if it could ease the burden of perennial load shedding and give more money to its sitting ticket holders, it could still carry the day.
Even though Yousaf Raza Gilani’s scion Qadir Gilani scraped through in the by-election in Multan, the ruling party should be well aware of its dismal position in Punjab. If not, it is living in a fool’s paradise.
It is banking upon Imran playing the spoiler’s role as well as on the Seraiki province slogan in the South of Punjab. The party - despite its poor record in government - should be able to regain its majority in Sindh. However, barring Balochistan, it winning in the rest of the country is open to question.
The probable results in the forthcoming elections could be a hodgepodge of parities retaining their respective strongholds. The only wild card in the pack is Imran Khan who has vowed to sit in the opposition if he is unable to eke out a majority for his party. Hence, in the end analysis, if Imran refuses to play ball, the next government could well be a coalition.
Zardari as president has finally spoken declaring the parliament as the supreme legislative body of the country. Notwithstanding Sharif’s newfound penchant for an independent judiciary, all institutions have to work within their respective domains for the sake of the smooth running of the democratic system.
Regardless of posturing, both the PPP and the PML(N) have to sit down and evolve a modicum of consensus on basic issues including the timing of the elections and the subsequent formation of the caretaker government.
Issues like the economy, Balochistan, terrorism and the deteriorating law and order situation in the country (including Punjab) need urgent attention. Both the parties should realise that people are sick and tired of their petty squabbling. In the process, the country and the democratic system is suffering.
There is talk of a military-backed government of technocrats for a couple of years to sort out the present mess. It’s an idea based on sheer naiveté. How can such a setup succeed unless one of the major parties is willing to lend a helping hand? Certainly neither the PPP nor PML(N) could support such a dubious setup. But they should evolve a consensus in thwarting it.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today