Darkness at Noon (League)

Murtaza Solangi spends time in Sharif camp with his ear to the ground

By MURTAZA SOLANGI — Schizophrenia has erupted in the new cabinet. It is behaving like both the government and the opposition. With only nine months left before the caretaker set-up takes over, new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s bloated cabinet is in a fix. On one hand it has to complete the ambitious development agenda of projects launched by the Sharif government in this much time and on the other hand, while firefighting daily, it has to play second fiddle to the new agenda of the Grand National Debate that has been launched by the ousted Premier.

Meanwhile, the country has been put through the grinder with the Panama leaks case, which along with the shocking Supreme Court verdict has accelerated the downward spiral of the national economy. The only silver lining is that the ruling party can put it on the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (that filed the petition in the first place), supported by the security establishment and the judiciary. Fundamental questions remain to be addressed, however.

Can Nawaz Sharif give a comeback? Will he be able to cut a deal with the Pakistan Peoples Party to strike down the much-anticipated departures in the Constitution and get rid of what they call “institutional disequilibrium”? Will Nawaz Sharif run out of steam by March next year when the Senate elections are due? First things first.

The four-day march of the former premier ended last week. Nawaz Sharif kept pounding the judiciary with oblique references to the security establishment throughout his homecoming rally. He also kept up the rhetoric with his new mantra of a Grand National Debate in addition to being vocal about his resolve to base himself in Raiwind but continue his mission to “restore the sanctity of public mandate”. At his final rally he promised to make an important announcement on Independence Day but nothing happened.

What is happening in his camp, everyone is wondering these days. During the homecoming rally, Tehmina Durrani, the famous author of My Feudal Lord and the wife of Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, hit at Nawaz Sharif and his close confidantes on Twitter, advising him to fire what she called the “Under-19 team of advisors”. She insisted that the march was putting too much pressure on his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif and was actually quickening the eventual downfall of the entire Sharif Empire.

She is not alone in this thinking. There is a group in the party that is sounding like Tehmina. Its members believe that the policy of taking the security establishment and the judiciary head-on was wrong to begin with. The party does not have the ideology, organization and the cadres to do this. The Pakistan Muslim League-N is not an agitational party—it is a party that cuts deals, believe the people who are part of this group. Outgoing interior minister Chaudhry Nisar too belonged to this group and has the silent support of Shehbaz Sharif.

Another group, represented by some members of the new cabinet, believes that angry marches and rallies on the Grand Trunk road were a good idea to build pressure to cut deals and fight another day. The wave has been successfully created, the capital earned, and now is the time to cash it on to fight another day, they say.

But the group that dominates the discourse and that commands the majority and has the receptive ear of the elder Sharif, wants to fight all the way. This group that can rightly be called the vanguard of the party believe that enough is now enough. “We have been constantly hit hard. Dharna I, DAWN leaks, Dharna II, and now this Panama. This is despite the fact that we have been taking it lying down. No more,” said one of the policymakers affiliated with this vanguard group. This group believes that the time has now come to address this disequilibrium once and for all. Enraged Nawaz Sharif, who has nothing to lose, is up to the job.

Although Pakistan Peoples Party leaders starting with Khursheed Shah, Aitzaz Ahsan, Sherry Rehman, Latif Khosa and Qamar Zaman Kaira have pooh-poohed Nawaz Sharif’s call for a Grand National Debate, Sharif loyalists believe it is an eminently accomplishable task. In fact, they have already go the Muttahida Qaumi Movement on their side through a quid pro quo. “The PPP is effectively owned and operated by Asif Zardari. He decides the path the party has to embark on. Nobody else,” remarked a Sharif loyalist, requesting anonymity.

On Tuesday, August 15, two major legal developments took place, one in Karachi and one in Islamabad. In Islamabad, Nawaz Sharif’s lawyers filed a review petition challenging the July 28 disqualification verdict. In Karachi, the PTI petitioned against the new accountability law of the Sindh government earlier passed by the Sindh Assembly. The PTI believes that the law has been manufactured to shield corrupt officials and politicians. The PML-N also believes the same but stopped short of approaching the courts to strike down the law. Many in the national capital believe this to be the proverbial olive branch. “The Noon-League considers this a Godsend. If the courts strike down the Sindh Accountability law, they bring the PPP onboard with them on the same page. Common ground is created,” said one analyst.

But a lot of ground needs to be covered when it comes to bridging the gap between the PML-N and the PPP. The PPP has already given the PTI a walkover as the main opposition to the PML-N in the Punjab. Many of its electables have already switched sides and joined the PTI bandwagon.

The rift between the parties started three years ago when PPP leaders as well the MQM came under fire in Sindh from the Rangers and the National Accountability Bureau. NAB and terrorism cases were filed against them. The PML-N, already weakened by Dharna I, decided to stay aloof to protect itself from the wrath of the security establishment. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the arrest of Asif Zardari’s confidante Dr Asim Hussain in the last week of August in 2015. Just a couple of months earlier, the noose around the former president was tightening so much that on June 16, he threw a fit. His outbursts on June 16 shook everyone and his “brick by brick” challenge effectively ended the rapport between him and Nawaz Sharif. The Prime Minister, who was scheduled to meet the former president, cancelled his meeting and issued a statement distancing himself from Asif Zardari and siding with the security establishment. Asif Zardari had to leave the country and live in virtual self-exile till the era of General Raheel Sharif was over.

After that, many efforts were made by the ruling PML-N to bring about a truce but Asif Zardari rebuffed them all. Nawaz Sharif even sent Maulana Fazal Rehman to London but Zardari refused to budge. But the July 28 verdict, throwing the Prime Minister out under Article 62/1(f) of the Constitution has opened a new window. The PML-N that did not listen to the PPP in 2011 to get rid of the amendment inserted by Zia ul Haq in the Article has now fallen on the same chopping block.

With the former president back in the country after the disqualification, the PML-N hopefuls are eyeing the opportunity and make a long-term and short-term arrangement with the PPP. Will the PPP, that has borne the brunt of most of the judicial verdicts, make common cause with the ousted Sharif? That has yet to be seen. Will the super dealmaker a.k.a. Asif Zardari be able to extract what he wants for the near future and the post-election set-up for himself and his party? In politics, especially the Pakistan version of it, there are no permanent values but the interests that shape and reshape political positions.

The biggest question seems, however, to be how the apex court will treat the recent reactions and the outlandish allegations made by Nawaz Sharif on his four-day long drive through the heartland of the Punjab. Will the court and the security establishment take this display of power kindly and loosen the screws on the Sharifs? Will the court rescind its decision to appoint a monitoring judge and a six-month bar to conclude references against the Sharif family?

If not, then what options are open for the elder Sharif? Many believe that the PML-N ruling the federation and the largest province can’t behave like the ruling and the opposition party at the same time for too long. Either it will have to cut a deal to live another day, or bring the system to a grinding halt by announcing early elections.

With the establishment and the courts firmly against the Sharifs, a lot can happen during the caretaker set-up. “They say the doctrine of necessity is dead but a new necessity can give it a rebirth,” said a top legal mind. “We may be in for a new experiment like the Bangladesh model.”

The writer is a broadcast journalist based in Islamabad.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect PKonweb’s editorial policy.

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