PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry’s arrest was not a precondition of PML(N) Senior Vice-President Maryam Nawaz, but one does not have to seek too far to see the link. Dissolving the Punjab Assembly has put a caretaker Chief Minister in place, in Mohsin Naqvi, and has removed from office PTI ally Ch Pervez Elahi. Not only did Chaudhry no longer have the protection of the Punjab police, but Maryam had no fear of returning to Lahore.
At the same time, as the province prepares for elections, Chaudhry and Maryam are both symbolic of further changes that might take place for their leaders. Indeed, they are consciously precursors. If Chaudhry can be arrested, so can party chief Imran Khan himself. It is to be noted that Chaudhry was arrested for something he had said about the Election Commission of Pakistan. Now Imran has been speaking freely in public against various institutions, and certain individuals.
Chaudhry, in Ch Pervez’s tenure, could have followed his leader safe in the knowledge that he would not be touched. If he was arrested by the Punjab Police and taken by it to Islamabad, that is worse than its merely accompanying the Islamabad police party, but it should not disguise the fact that if the Punjab police had chosen to be uncooperative, the Islamabad policemen could have done nothing about it. The call given by Imran for protests did not yield much of a result. Obviously, Fawad Chaudhry was not a cause for which PTI supporters were prepared to render more sacrifices. However, the Punjab government has to consider whether those supporters are sufficiently invested in preventing Imran’s arrest.
Maryam’s return was also a sign of the times. She had obtained bail while Ch Pervez was in office, and had got her name removed from the Exit Control List before going off to see her father. However, it cannot be ignored that her stay in the UK lasted almost four months, and ended only when Ch Pervez was out.
At the same time, she faces no cases, nor arrest for any offence. Her arrest would have required the registration of a fresh case. Naqvi could be expected not to do any such thing, but Ch Pervez could not, not after his wife and daughters-in-law had been summoned by the FIA. The rule on not involving women could no longer apply.
However, neither Fawad Chaudhry’s arrest nor Maryam Nawaz’s return should be seen as straws in the wind, strongly tempted as observers might feel that they are. Both are cataclysmic, in their way, but neither brings to an end the political instability bedevilling the country
She announced the return of Mian Nawaz soon, but did not give a date. Her credibility on this point was not very great, because the word out on the street is that he will not return. It should be noted that Maryam’s getting bail means that Mian Nawaz should get bail in the Avenfield case, but provides him no help in his conviction, which is for possessing an iqama, and for concealing this from the Election Commission. He must be waiting anxiously the outcome of the case against Imran for not informing the ECP of the existence of a daughter, Tyrian White, If Imran gets relief in that case, Mian Nawaz will be able to claim that relief for himself.
It should be remembered that Nawaz is in a little deeper than Maryam, or the other returnees from London, Ishaq Dar and Salman Shehbaz, Whereas Mariam was a free woman, and the other two wanted by a court, which could grant them bail, Mian Nawaz skipped bail from a jail. If he surrenders before the jail authorities, they cannot give him bail. He can get transit bail from the airport to jail, but the caretakers will not stick their neck out for him.
Mohsin Naqvi is married to one of Ch Shujaat Hussain’s nieces, and has cordial relations with PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari, but while his relations with the Sharif family are supposed to be cordial, they are not deep enough for the PTI to accuse him of being bent on favouring him in any unusual fashion. At most, Mian Nawaz can hope to be allowed access to some of the creature comforts Imran was bent on depriving him of, like an air-conditioner (which is not needed for months, anyway).
However, as Maryam has said, he is to return. From one point of view, his return is essential. From that same point of view, that return to jail would not merely be unproductive, but potentially counter-productive, for him being in jail would force the entire party to act (perhaps futilely) for his release, at a time when it should concentrate on the election campaign in its backyard. At such a time, for the party’s chief to be immured in prison, would be bad for morale.
At the same time, Mian Nawaz has got to campaign if Punjab is to be won back. The PTI won it in 2018 when both Mian Nawaz and Maryam were in jail. He is considered essential to a winning campaign. Candidates on marginal seats will be the ones pressing hardest for his return, and free return, so that he can campaign in their constituencies.
However, it could be argued that Maryam is able to lead the campaign alone. It might be a hard task, but if she is to lead the party, a baptism of fire may be optimal. After all, her father is a septuagenarian, and will not be around forever. She herself is a grandmother, and 49. At this age, her father had been Prime Minister, and was Opposition Leader. She is being tipped as Chief Minister if the PML(N) wins, and it has been assumed that Mian Hamza Shehbaz has been found wanting. At any rate, he has not developed as a campaigner, and in his only outing as CM, only managed to get ousted. He also did not provide the requisite leadership for the vote of confidence that followed, with the result that the Punjab Assembly was dissolved.
Another problem that Maryam and the PMLIN) face is whether provincial polls will be held at all. There are two issues here. One is the census, which is to be held at the beginning of March. If the election is held around April’s beginning, the results will have come in. While it is legal to hold an election under the present demarcations, demarcation according to the new results, which must take place before the next election, would become obvious. It is not so much the shifts of seats between provinces, as the reallocation of seats between districts that will matter. Also important are the five new districts created by the Pervez government, where seat boundaries will have to be adjusted to the districts.
Then there is the issue of the National Assembly, if its life is prolonged by the declaration of an economic emergency. There seems no provision in the Constitution for a postponement of provincial polls even then, but one never knows what arguments might arise if lawyers get to work. It should be taken as given that Mian Nawaz will not be coming home if there is a postponement. Only when there is a confirmed date for the poll will he return.
In this context, the likelihood of the coming by-elections, slotted for March 16, become doubtful.
However, if they take place, they will be a national challenge for Maryam. It might be a strange campaign, what with Imran standing for all the vacated seats. The provincial elections can take place about a month after that, and Imran cannot even theoretically stand on all seats (he can only do for the province where his vote is inscribed, Punjab). Mian Nawaz will be strongly tempted to return, and will be called by the party’s leaders, the legal path of his return is not all that clear, and its murkiness is increased by the current caretakers. What would happen in the event of Imran’s disqualification, imprisonment or both, is another matter. Mian Nawaz will lower the bar then for his return, being tempted by a reversal of the 2018 position.
However, neither Fawad Chaudhry’s arrest nor Maryam Nawaz’s return should be seen as straws in the wind, strongly tempted as observers might feel that they are. Both are cataclysmic, in their way, but neither brings to an end the political instability bedevilling the country.