Second coming of the Sharifs

Nawaz Sharif and his close confidantes have thought it through. The PML-N is ready to resist

Second coming of the Sharifs
With pundits predicting another National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz will return to Pakistan to go behind bars today. What is in it for them? After all, they chose the option to return. Will the welcome they receive be a show of strength or a show of weakness? Will Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) convert to PML-S (Shehbaz) in absence of the father and the daughter? So many questions.

Nawaz Sharif and his close confidantes thought it through for many weeks in London before announcing their return. All senior leaders of the party met them there and offered their advice. They knew and predicted the verdict long before it was announced on Friday. After a cost and benefit analysis, a decision was made. In his presser on Tuesday, Nawaz Sharif came out of his ‘khalaee makhlooq’ and the Department of Agriculture metaphors and accused Major General Faiz Hameed for engineering elections and even blasted DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor for defending him.

“The gloves are off,” said a senior talking head of the PML-N. “Now it really doesn’t matter if we win or lose elections. It also does not matter how many people we gather in Lahore to welcome our leaders. Battle lines have been drawn. We are at a defining moment in our country’s history as well as our party,” said the PML-N leader.
Regardless of the size of the welcome party today and whether the plane is diverted to another city, the event will send a message of resistance to the electorate of the Punjab

Party sources say that with the strongest verdict yet against Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, the reconciliatory and soft-pedalling group has been effectively side-lined. Seasonal migratory birds have departed. The PML-N’s rank and file is now united to put up a fight,” said a party insider. “When you see Hamza Shehbaz determined to put up a fight, you can guess where this party is headed,” he added.

In his last interview, published just two days before his return, the former premier made it clear that although he and his daughter received several “suggestions” to stay put in London to fight another day, both decided to return by announcing their itinerary.

In the same interview, Nawaz Sharif also revealed why he has been so combative recently and why he did not accept the soft line of reconciliation suggested by Chaudhry Nisar and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif.

“The policy of restraint did not bring any positive results. When I said that we will have to take concrete measures and set our own house in order to make the world trust our seriousness, a new game plan was launched, branding my ideas as Dawn leaks,” Sharif said as he packed his bags for a one-way ticket home.

Even veteran journalist Nusrat Javed, who has covered the former premier since Zia’s era, was shocked by Sharif’s decision. “The decision to return is quite surprising given the circumstances. They had legitimate reasons to stay put in London and not to land in prison. The decision to serve prison terms with near certainty that they won’t get any relief from any court of law proves that they have decided to bail out their politics rather than their personal comforts,” he said.

Party veterans believe that in the post-election scenario, their narrative will dominate, no matter what the results are. “With Nawaz and Maryam in Rawalpindi, the parliament will be rocking. Even if we are thrown out of the government, we shall dominate both houses of the parliament. It will be our time, baby!” says a PML-N senator.

Senior PML-N leader and former foreign minister Khawaja Asif thinks all is not lost even after his leader and his heir apparent go behind bars. “A thrice-elected prime minister was removed from office each time, not through popular vote but through intervention of other institutions. This time, while his popularity is still high, he has decided to break this cycle and is calling for institutionalising respect for the people’s mandate. In the short term, it will be a rough ride but he is finally sowing seeds of supremacy of the popular will. In long term, it will strengthen the federation and sanctity of the constitution” said the embattled Sialkot parliamentarian.

With clouds of an engineered election hovering and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Asif Zardari and his sister Feryal Talpur in trouble over allegations of money laundering, the scene is changing. PPP leaders accusing serving army officers of pre-poll rigging makes the situation more complex.

But, as euphoric as the PML-N rank and file may sound, their leaders all over the Punjab are under tremendous pressure.

“After Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hasan Fawad, the pressure is mounting on others. Khawaja Saad Rafique is under great pressure. He has been clearly told to stay put and do nothing on the welcome day. He has been clearly told that he needs to sober up,” confided another PML-N insider.

In the run up to Friday, hundreds of PML-N workers were picked up in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. The same was expected in other parts of the province. Vehicles transporting the welcome party have also been stopped.

Regardless of the size of the welcome party today and whether the plane is diverted to another city, the event will send a message of resistance to the electorate of the Punjab.

Senator Mushahid Hussain who recently re-joined PML-N and is a close confidante and strategist for both brothers is not impressed with the arrests and expects a big turnout today.

“Mian Nawaz Sharif has thrown the gauntlet with courage and determination.  Our detractors are off balance. We expect a big show as there is widespread popular support and sympathy for Mian Sahib. The mood is defiant and spirits are high. They will do what all administrations have done in the past: a tried, tested and failed formula. We will do what the people, workers and supporters want, which is the need of the hour,” he told The Friday Times.

Senior politician and former senator Afrasiab Khattak, who was one of the leading faces of the 18th amendment, said jailing Sharifs will embolden their narrative.

Khattak says with Sharifs in jail in the post-election setting, the principal contradiction of the establishment versus the civilians will dominate. “By deciding to return for fighting a legal and political battle, Mian Nawaz Sharif and Mariam Nawaz will be a serious challenge for managers of political engineering. To their utter disdain, politics in the country will revolve around Nawaz Sharif, and civilian supremacy versus Khaki control will become the main issue in elections.”

With allegations of pre-poll rigging and election engineering at an unprecedented scale, the outcome is not too far away. Whether it will be a general election or generals’ elections, we are sure to find out on Thursday, July 26.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad