Is PML-N ready for a showdown?


By Arifa Noor

AFTER weeks of ‘kabhi haan, kabhi naan’, the PML-N has been back in the news over the past few days for what it says was a heated meeting followed by an organisational shake up.

The meeting appeared to be rather interesting. Shortly after it took place, news reports claimed that there was an intense debate during which senior leaders criticised the party’s lack of direction and the softness of its stance. And what happened next was even more intriguing. A party, which is averse to admitting to and discussing its differences openly, conceded frankly to conflicting views being aired in the meeting. From Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to Khawaja Asif (who ended his short self-exile away from talk shows) to Rana Tanveer, they all accepted that the party had been slumbering recently and how this was discussed unflatteringly at the meeting. It is nothing short of an occasion when the Noonies publicly admit to disagreement within their ranks.

Or perhaps it shows the party’s second tier is capable of a healthy discussion once the Sharifs are not present to impose a single view on them all. If, before the elections, they were all silenced into the defiance chosen by Nawaz Sharif, post elections, the younger brother had convinced them of the need to be more practically quiet. But once Shahbaz Sharif wasn’t there, they were willing to discuss the need for a different, noisier strategy. (Though it might take them much longer to openly discuss a detour from the path Nawaz Sharif walks on.)

And, within hours, the party also announced a new organisational structure. This had been months in the making as Ahsan Iqbal had been tasked with this job shortly after the elections. The announcement came on the same day as Mian Nawaz Sharif’s petition for an extension of his bail was rejected.

This is not some radical new start. Any party when under siege has little choice but to sound defiant.

At first glance, the notification of the office holders held many a surprise. For instance, the inclusion of Maryam Nawaz was seen as a sign that she was once again ready to play a role in politics. Those close to her (such as Mohammad Zubair and Talal Chaudhry) have also been accommodated, as well as those once sacked by Nawaz Sharif (Tariq Fatemi and Pervez Rashid) as he struggled with the news leaks saga.

But this may not necessarily mean a return to the ‘mujhe kiyun nikala’ mood prevailing before the election.

Undoubtedly, in recent days, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter had gone quiet as Shahbaz Sharif tried to weave his magic for the sake of some relief for the family. And initially it was seen to work — the junior Sharif and his family got considerable relief from the courts as did his older brother. But then the tide turned. Shahbaz Sharif’s family faced a slew of money-laundering accusations while Sharif senior’s quest for treatment abroad appeared to be a nonstarter.

And the party is now willing to give defiance another chance, argue some.

But this is not some radical new start. Any party when under siege has little choice but to sound defiant. And the PML-N continues to be under siege. The family head has been struggling with legal cases since before the elections, but now the second tier is also about to be sucked into the accountability maelstrom — while Saad Rafique is already in jail. The National Accountability Bureau is questioning Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Khawaja Asif, and Ahsan Iqbal is next according to some reports. There are also rumours of inquiries against Marriyum Aurangzeb and Rana Sanaullah.

But even if the accountability campaign wasn’t targeting the party, what else is a party in opposition to do, especially when it believes it has been robbed of its majority? Or what else do parties do when in opposition except sound angry and kick up a fuss? That is what PTI did for five years and this is what both the PPP and PML-N did post-2002.

However, despite the circumstances and the reports of what happened in the meeting last week, the PML-N may not be able to do more than making parliament dysfunctional and sounding aggressive in talk shows. Hitting the streets, especially a long march, requires resolve, capacity and backing by those who matter.

There is another way of looking at the new organisational structure — how it reveals the prevalence of the status quo. The issue of the party’s heir remains unresolved as both Maryam and Hamza have been given similar designations; Maryam may be the crowd puller and her father’s daughter, but she and her father are in no mood to exile the other relatives and neither are the latter ready for a revolt.

Similarly, the party’s senior leadership have all been rewarded as have those who made their way in by being loyal to Maryam. The list has not been purged either of the revolutionaries or the traditionalists.

It simply confirms that Nawaz Sharif continues to be in a defiant mood as he has made sure to include all those whom he knows to be irksome to the establishment, including making Ishaq Dar the head of international affairs! But this is not to say that he is averse to a compromise (in the form of silence) if there is hope of some relief.

Postscript: Can we all stop using ‘deal’ without really mulling over what it may mean under the present circumstances? Any understanding between the Sharifs and the powers that be will not be as formal as the last time around. Back in 2000, the family was willing to sign a document and agree to exile as the courts they were facing were more hostile as were the convictions. But in a democratic system (however rigged) the future of their legal cases is not so cut and dry. They don’t need to cut a deal; they are simply looking for a bit of relief. And the other side may not be averse to it either. An ailing political leader in jail must be of discomfort to them also. Eventually, both sides will benefit from ‘dheel’ without the legal process coming to a halt. But how the courts will come on board is another matter.