Looking For A Centre: The PML-N's Roots And Evolving Ideological Trajectory

Looking For A Centre: The PML-N's Roots And Evolving Ideological Trajectory
The PML-N is perhaps the country’s largest ‘big tent’ party. Big tent parties absorb members from various diverse (and even competing) social and economic backgrounds. But these groups are tied to a set of ideals that they agree to share and work towards. This way, big-tent parties tend to attract the largest chunk of the electorate, despite having competing factions and wings within. The other two major big-tent outfits in Pakistan are the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the centre-right Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

The PML-N emerged in 1993 as a breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). And the PML itself was formed in 1985, when several factions of Muslim League were brought on a single platform by the time’s most prominent faction, the Muslim League-Functional. A majority of these factions had roots in the country’s founding party, the Muslim League (formerly the All India Muslim League [AIML]).

In the late 1930s, the AIML had become a big-tent party in British India. Its ideological orientation was centrist, but its core purpose became increasingly radical when, from 1940 onwards, it began to work towards the creation of a separate Muslim-majority country. At the centre of AIML were Muslims from Muslim-minority areas of India, steeped in the idea of Muslim nationalism which was evolved by the likes of ‘Muslim modernists’ such as the reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid, transformed AIML into a big-tent party with a centrist ideological disposition

The party’s left-wing mainly constituted socialists, and on the right were some pro-League ulema, pirs and members of the landed Muslim elites. In the centre were liberal-nationalist business elites, and urban middle-class professionals. The AIML became Muslim League after Pakistan’s creation in 1947. But once the party’s core purpose was served (the creation of Pakistan), tensions between its three wings became stark and intense. First to exit were those on the left, who quit to form their own factions. But it was the struggle for dominance between the party’s right and centrist wings that eventually shattered the outfit.

Numerous Muslim League factions emerged across the next three decades. Factions formed by the leftist Leaguers largely got absorbed by parties such as the PPP, or turned into radical ethnic entities such as the Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League (AL). Interestingly, AL had first emerged in 1954 as Jinnah Muslim League. In the late 1950s, it became the AL and, eventually, the founding party of Bangladesh.

Factions formed by the rightists in the original League further splintered before being absorbed by Muslim League-Functional (ML-F). ML-F was formed in 1974. The centrists from the original League were first absorbed by the Convention Muslim League formed by the Ayub Khan regime in 1962. But the Convention League splintered into even newer centrist factions after the 1970 elections.

By 1984, rightist ML factions outnumbered the centrist factions. ML-F was successful in absorbing these as well. The outcome was PML. The party’s formation was encouraged by the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship (1977-88). The dictatorship used it as its civilian vessel. PML’s primary purpose was to undermine the main opposition party, the PPP, that had a hefty vote-bank in the country’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Sindh.

Constant crackdowns against the PPP and other opposition parties, and state patronage, aided the PML to expand its size and influence. Funds provided to it by the Zia dictatorship, after the party came to power through a ‘party-less election’ in 1985, were mostly utilised in Punjab. Opposition parties had boycotted the election. Even though a member of ML-F, Muhammad Khan Junejo, a Sindhi, became the president of PML and then the country’s prime minister, he was constantly overshadowed by Mian Nawaz Sharif, who was elected as Punjab’s Chief Minister.

1987: PM Junejo making a speech during an event in Punjab. Fellow PML member and CM Punjab Nawaz Sharif looks on

PML became a big-tent party. It constituted representatives of industrial and business groups, landed elites, the ulema, the clergy and clusters of Punjabi middle-and-lower-middle-classes. Ideologically it aligned itself with Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ project, and also with the dictatorship’s economic liberalisation and deregulation policies. The party was somewhat successful in creating a constituency for itself in Punjab, but it struggled to do the same in Sindh.

After Zia’s demise in 1988, the party was confronted by a resurgent PPP. PML was convinced by General Hamid Gul, the chief of the country’s premier intelligence agency the ISI, to form an alliance with like-minded parties to challenge the PPP in the 1988 election. Gul was a staunch ‘Ziaist.’ Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) became this alliance. It mainly constituted right-wing parties, with PML being its largest component.
Middle-and lower-middle-income groups in Punjab that had voted for the PPP — due to the party’s early ‘socialist’ platform and its overt anti-India rhetoric — had also benefitted from Zia’s economic policies. They had felt aggrieved when in 1976 the ZA Bhutto regime began to nationalise medium and small enterprises. They were fine when he was taking to task the large businesses, though

The results of the 1988 elections reinforced the fact that PML had begun to make inroads into Punjab but was extremely weak in Sindh. This enhanced the party’s Punjabi leadership, headed by Nawaz. When the IJI did manage to defeat the PPP in 1990, tensions between the Punjab and Sindh wings in the party intensified. Nawaz was chosen by the party to become PM, leaving its Sindhi leadership fuming. By the time Nawaz was dismissed by President Ishaq Khan in 1993, the IJI had disintegrated. Nawaz broke away from PML and formed his own faction, the PML-N.

At the time of its formation, PML-N positioned itself as a party committed to safeguarding the economic policies that had been initiated during the Zia dictatorship. These policies went a long way in aiding the economic interests of the industrial and trader classes, and of middle-income groups, especially in the Punjab. The party also looked to sustain Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ measures, which it claimed were under threat from ‘secular’ parties such as the PPP.

During the 1993 elections that the PPP won, the PML-N performed rather well, considering it was a faction of a larger party, the PML. However, without Nawaz, PML lost its traction in Punjab. The party began to face further splintering. Ironically, one PML faction in Punjab, PML-Chattha, which had first emerged as PML-Junejo, struck an electoral alliance with the PPP.

Nawaz had built his reputation as a ‘doer’ when he was CM Punjab during the PML regime (1985-88). Nawaz was courted by Zia and provided support and funds as a way to usurp PPP’s vote-bank in Punjab. Secondly, the Zia dictatorship’s economic policies had greatly benefitted Punjab. These policies shaped new clusters of middle-and-lower-middle-income groups in the province who began to identify Nawaz with the prosperity that these clusters had enjoyed during the Zia regime.

1990: Nawaz with Jatoi and Junejo. He outsmarted both to become PM

During the IJI’s campaign for the 1988 election, Nawaz unabashedly took pride in expressing Punjabi chauvinism, asking Punjabis to vote for a man from their own community, instead of a Sindhi. Indeed, his slogan of “Jaag Punjabi Jaag” (Wake up, Punjabis) was aimed at the Sindhi Bhuttos of the PPP, but it was also a ploy to undermine PML’s Sindhi leadership which was aiming to give Junejo or Mustafa Jatoi the PM’s slot.

Nawaz maintained his close links with the Punjabi business and trader elites, the bureaucracy, and the military establishment – even though when he was ousted by the President in 1993 (on ‘corruption’ charges), he posed as a man who was not willing to be a puppet of “un-elected forces.” Sharif and his PML-N also cultivated relations with certain Islamic evangelical groups whose membership had swelled from the 1980s. One of these was the Taleeghi Jamat (TJ). The TJ had been formed in the 1920s. By the 1990s, due to the patronage that it enjoyed during the Zia dictatorship, and then the Nawaz regime, it was able to bag patrons and members from the armed forces and the middle-classes.

The PML-N was successful in attracting the support and votes of the aforementioned clusters of Punjab’s newer upper-and-middle-income segments as well as lower-middle-income groups. As mentioned, these were created and bolstered by Zia’s economic policies. But they were also the result of a policy that had been originally conceived and implemented by the first PPP government in the mid-1970s. In 1974, the ZA Bhutto government had convinced wealthy Arab countries to import labour from Pakistan. Thousands of passports were issued to Pakistanis who began travelling to Arab countries, mainly as blue-collar workers. Initially, most of these were from Punjab.

Working in oil-rich Arab countries bolstered the economic status of thousands of Pakistanis. Economic deregulation by the Zia regime allowed remittances from Pakistanis working abroad to be invested inside the country. This expanded the size of middle-and lower-middle-income groups, many of whom became a large pro-Zia constituency in Punjab, eventually of PML and then the PML-N. There was also a gradual shift in the voting behaviour of Punjabis who had voted in droves for the PPP in 1970 and in 1977. A mixture of various factors were involved that aided PML-N to begin usurping PPP votes in the province as well.

A large PML-N hoarding in Lahore during the 1993 elections

Middle-and lower-middle-income groups in Punjab that had voted for the PPP — due to the party’s early ‘socialist’ platform and its overt anti-India rhetoric— had also benefitted from Zia’s economic policies. They had felt aggrieved when in 1976 the ZA Bhutto regime began to nationalise medium and small enterprises. They were fine when he was taking to task the large businesses, though. Then, a mixture of Punjabi chauvinism floated by Nawaz in 1988, and his ‘defiant’ rhetoric when he was ousted in 1993, seemed to have combined to attract industrial workers in urban Punjab and small farmers in rural Punjab. This became apparent during the 1993 elections when the PPP’s electoral influence in central and northern Punjab was curtailed and restricted to the less-developed ‘Saraiki belt’ of the province.

The mentioned factors also combined to even attract some anti-Zia segments towards PML-N in Punjab. One can provide various examples in this context, but some of the earliest include Pervez Rashid, Rana Sanaullah and Raja Anwar. Both Rashid and Anwar were left-wing student leaders who had been part of the 1968 movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship. Both also took part in various anti-Zia activities in the 1980s. But by the mid-1990s, they had joined the PML-N. Rana Sanaullah was a member of the PPP who had won an NA seat in Faisalabad during the 1990 elections and was once a staunch ‘Bhuttoist.’ A left-wing began to emerge within PML-N’s big tent structure, even though it was overwhelmed by the party’s right-wing. In its centrist wing sat members of business communities who were also active in trying to stretch the party’s appeal to the country’s economic hub, Karachi, the capital of Sindh. Karachi at the time was the bastion of the Mohajir nationalist party, the MQM. The rest of Sindh largely tilted towards the PPP and the Sindhis often saw PML-N as a Punjabi party.

Nawaz was closest to the party’s right-wing that was populated by representatives of business and trader communities and Islamic conservatives. The wing also carried those who were once associated with the Jamiat-i-Islami (JI) and its student-wing. PML-N’s right-wing was instrumental in keeping the party well to the right. One is not sure exactly what the party’s then tiny left-wing was up to during this period. But one can assume that Sharif’s growing urge to normalise and bolster economic relations with India was being influenced by the centrists who headed large businesses, as Nawaz himself did.

PML-N swept the 1997 elections. This time it also made deep inroads in South Punjab, that was the PPP’s last electoral bastion in the province. Nawaz became PM again. He stuck to his ideas of economic liberalisation and social conservatism. His bid to also monopolise the agendas of Islamist parties created resentment among these parties because they believe that only they have the right to propagate and implement such agendas. Nawaz was the target of two assassination attempts by radical Sunni sectarian groups after he launched an operation against them in 1997. Sectarian terrorism had become a nuisance in Punjab.

In 1998, when India conducted nuclear tests, Nawaz agreed to oust the not-very-secretive-secret that Pakistan, too, had a nuclear device. Pakistan conducted its own tests, drawing severe economic sanctions from its main donors and economic partners, the U.S. and various European countries. The economy began to buckle. The government’s finance minister, Sartaj Aziz, a centrist and architect of the regime’s economic policies, had advised against the tests for this very reason. But Nawaz went ahead. Ironically, in 1999, Nawaz was of the view that the economy could be revived if Pakistan restored economic and political ties with India. The Indian PM was invited to Lahore.

1998: PM Nawaz with President Rafiq Tarar, who was handpicked by Nawaz and was a member of the Tableeghi Jamat

But the visit created tensions between Nawaz and the military. As Nawaz was meeting the Indian PM, JI held loud demonstrations against the visit. The government was of the view that the protests were tacitly supported by the military establishment. It was a hectic period for the government. On the one hand, as it moved left by trying to restore economic and political relations with India, on the the other, it kept moving further to the right by trying to silence the media and the opposition and “curbing obscenity.” Then, in an unprecedented move, Nawaz tried to get himself named as Ameer-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful) by the parliament, which was packed with PML-N members. It did just that. But the bill was rejected by the Senate, where the party did not have a majority. The Islamist parties were livid.

The idea was to turn the country into a one-party state, and to also undermine the influence and power of the military establishment. The long-standing patron-protégé relationship between the military establishment and Nawaz began to come apart. Nawaz eased out General Jehangir Karamat as military chief because he believed that the latter was trying to undermine his authority by suggesting the creation of a national security council. In October 1999, Nawaz was toppled in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf. Sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, Nawaz was allowed to go into exile to Saudi Arabia. In fact, this was done on the request of the Saudi monarchy.

The Shift

Ousted: Nawaz with brother Shahbaz outside an anti-terrorism court that sentenced him to life imprisonment. Ironically, such courts were created in 1997 by his government to try sectarian terrorists

The PML-N started to unravel when Sharif was exiled, and some senior members of the party decided to support the new dictator. Most of these were those who had become increasingly uneasy due to Sharif’s desire to create a cult of personality, engage with India and spin away from the orbit of military’s influence. There were no angry protests after Sharif was ousted. The economy was in turmoil, sectarian violence was peaking, and thanks to the manner in which the Sharif government had treated the press, no one came to his aid. In fact, the overall message of the editorials in almost every major newspaper was that the coup against Sharif was a self-inflicted wound.

PML-N members who quit the party helped form the PML-Quaid (PML-Q). It was a revival of sorts of the 1985-era PML. During the first two years of his regime, Musharraf struggled to regenerate the economy. But after agreeing to crackdown on Islamists, break ties with the Taliban regime in Kabul and join America’s ‘war on terror,’ he was able to get economic sanctions against Pakistan lifted. His regime also became the recipient of hefty financial and military aid from the US. He was here to stay. And for that, he needed a political party of his own.

Even though the PML-Q was studded with what used to be PML-N’s right and centrist wings, they now embraced Musharraf’s ‘social liberalism.’ They were already in tune with Sharif’s economic policies (sans trade with India), so naturally, they welcomed Musharraf’s economic manoeuvres which opened up the economy even more than Nawaz did. PML-Q became the civilian face of the military regime. Ironically, Musharraf would go out of his way to establish peace and trade with India. PML-Q followed suit. It was able to form a coalition government after the 2002 election. Musharraf had already gotten himself ‘elected’ as president. PML-N was routed in the election. The PPP was able re-establish itself in Punjab. But with its chairperson in exile, it was kept out of the new ruling equation.

The PML-Q formed a coalition government in Islamabad, and even in Sindh. MQM played a major role in providing the required numbers in Islamabad and in Sindh. In Sindh, it allied itself with PML-Q and ML-F, to keep the PPP out. But KP and Balochistan were swept by the Islamist alliance the MMA. The alliance was allowed to form governments in these two provinces.

PML-Q chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain addressing the party's Women Convention

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz languished in exile. The former political foes signed a ‘Charter of Democracy’ in 2006. Both agreed that their parties “had been used by the establishment” to reduce their influence and roll back democracy in the country. When Bhutto and Sharif returned to Pakistan in 2007, their parties were already involved in a popular “lawyers’ movement” against the Musharraf regime. Islamist terrorism had intensified as well, and the economy was sliding after enjoying a brief boom. It was this boom that had begun to create a constituency for Musharraf. It was entirely made up of upper-middle and middle-income groups who had benefitted the most from the dictatorship’s economic policies. This is also when lifestyle liberals, who had remained apolitical, began to gravitate towards politically supporting Musharraf. The PML-Q, however, could not absorb this constituency the way Nawaz had absorbed the constituency that was created by the Zia dictatorship.

During the 2008 election campaign, the PML-N and PPP avoided criticising each other. They focused their energies on supporting the lawyer’s movement and criticising the Musharraf/PML-Q set-up. PML-N promised a revival of democracy and the economy. But unlike the PPP, the PML-N steered clear of commenting on the rising spectre of Islamist violence in the country. Benazir was assassinated in December 2007 by Islamist terrorists. Her husband Asif Zardari, took over the reins of the party. He continued Benazir’s reconciliatory policies towards PML-N.

In the 2008 polls, the PML-N won the second largest number of seats. The PPP won a slight majority. The turnout was low. There were two reasons for this. First, the threat of Islamist terrorism kept a lot of people away from polling stations. Secondly, the Musharraf constituency did not come out to vote. The PML-Q to them was not Musharraf. This was also a constituency that preferred a military strongman at the helm instead of ‘corrupt’ civilians.

The PML-N joined the PPP coalition government. Both then collaborated to force Musharraf to resign as president. However, the alliance didn’t last and PML-N moved to the opposition benches. Nawaz remained more restrained in his criticism of the new government. But his brother Shehbaz Sharif was increasingly vocal. However, the PML-N refused to take any part in ousting the government which was trying to fix a battered economy and stem the tide of extremist violence. PML-N criticised the government for fumbling on both fronts. It viewed the regime as incompetent, especially in economic matters. On the matter of extremist violence, PML-N preached dialogue with terrorist groups and agreed with the narrative of the religious parties positing that the terrorists were “misguided brothers.”
The PTI had successfully tapped the aforementioned Musharraf constituency which was ignored by the PML-N. This did come as a shock to the party. But party ideologues and strategists could not comprehend exactly what this constituency was about – because Khan was conjoining social liberalism with social conservatism, and economic liberalism with promises of a welfare state

Ideologically, the PML-N was in a flux. Shehbaz and Chaudhry Nisar, who now headed the party’s right-wing, focused their attacks on the PPP government. They were also opposed to any military operation against militant Islamist groups. After a vicious suicide bombing in Lahore’s Moon Market area in which dozens of civilians were killed, Shehbaz, who was CM Punjab, pleaded with the Islamists that the PML-N believed in what they (the Islamists) believed in, and that they should “spare Punjab” because Punjab supported them! Nawaz remained quiet.

In 2013, after promising a revival of the economy, and the resolution of the Islamist terrorism problem through dialogue, the PML-N was swept to power. It was during this election that the constituency that had emerged during the Musharraf dictatorship came out to vote. This constituency is said have been bolstered by the former ISI chief Shuja Pasha. Whereas it was encouraged to come out and support Imran Khan’s then tiny PTI, the PML-N went along, thinking that this was a ploy to undermine the PPP regime in Islamabad. Indeed, it was. But the PTI was also being propped up to keep the PML-N in check, so it could not bag a heavy mandate like it had done in 1997.

And yet, the PML-N did get a heavy mandate in 2013. The only difference was that this time, it was the PTI that emerged as the country’s second largest party. It did well in KP, Punjab and in Sindh’s capital city, Karachi. The PTI had successfully tapped the aforementioned Musharraf constituency which was ignored by the PML-N. This did come as a shock to the party. But party ideologues and strategists could not comprehend exactly what this constituency was about – because Khan was conjoining social liberalism with social conservatism, and economic liberalism with promises of a welfare state. It was a curious potpourri, entirely delivered through dazzling rallies and fantastical theoretical schemes.

The 2013 elections: swept to power

After 2014, when extremists attacked an Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, killing over 140 students and teachers, PML-N began to rapidly move towards the centre. On the military’s insistence, PM Nawaz greenlighted an unprecedented army operation against Islamist militants, especially in the north-west of the country. This move was calculated to neutralise PTI, because Imran Khan was against the operation. With the military neutralising the capabilities of militant groups, Nawaz began to advocate peace and trade with India, and the importance of creating a progressive and tolerant environment to attract foreign investment. He was somewhat able to improve the economy, but ran into trouble with the military – which was in no mood to make peace with an India that was now being led by a belligerent Hindu nationalist and anti-Pakistan government.

As tensions between the government and military intensified, Nawaz was removed through a controversial Supreme Court judgement (for not disclosing his employment in a Dubai-based company). His government also faced protest movements from the PTI, the ‘moderate’ Islamic leader Tahir-ul-Qadri and the radical Barelvi Islamist outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Khan retained the traction that he had received from the aforementioned constituency by constantly repeating the mantra of corruption against the PML-N. He also criticised the government’s overtures towards India. This further endeared him to the military establishment.

Meanwhile, the TLP had managed to gather thousands of charged youth in Islamabad after Nawaz okayed the execution of the assassin of former Governor of Punjab Salam Taseer, who was gunned down in 2011, for allegedly committing blasphemy. The TLP condemned the execution of the assassin. Some wings within the PML-N began to fear that the party might be moving too much to the centre, and might thus lose votes in its conservative constituencies. There were also others in PML-N who did not approve of Sharif’s stance towards India, which was causing tensions between the government and the military establishment.
During the controversial 2018 elections, some observers were of the view that the TLP had been successful in usurping a large chunk of PML-N votes, which aided the PTI to make deep inroads into Punjab. But this assumption seems to have been a bit misplaced

The PTI won a slight majority in the 2018 elections, but the PML-N remained strong in the country’s largest province, Punjab. Along with most other parties and observers, the PML-N claimed that the elections were rigged by the military establishment to instate a ‘puppet’ regime headed by Imran Khan.

As Khan struggled to control a spiralling economy, and his government was marred by incompetence on various fronts, Nawaz launched multiple tirades against the military establishment. The latter has started to quietly pull away from its ambitious project of retaining Khan, especially when Sharif’s narrative began to attract approval from large segments of the polity. This was also due to rising inflation.

PML-N’s electoral appeal has remained intact in Punjab. It is now positioning itself as the only party with the experience and expertise required to rectify the ‘blunders’ of the Khan regime in matters of the economy and foreign policy. It is also trying to expand its appeal in Sindh’s metropolitan capital Karachi, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It is likely to sweep Punjab, and the Hindko-speaking areas of KP. KP is bound to open up as well, as seen in the recent local bodies elections there –in which the JUI-F and ANP enjoyed a resurgence.

Sindh outside Karachi is likely to remain being a PPP bastion. What various Punjab-based and Karachi-based analysts often miss out is the fact that years of PPP rule in the province have created a vibrant Sindhi middle-class constituency. This constituency identifies with the PPP, that has invested a lot of effort and resources to keep it on its side. PTI ventured into Sindhi-speaking areas to tap this constituency, but failed. The party’s Sindh leadership is largely Mohajir and based in Karachi. The same is the case with PML-N in Sindh.

But Karachi has opened up. Ever since 2013, predicting election results in Karachi has become an increasingly complex endeavour. Voting trends in the mammoth capital city of Sindh are undergoing a transformation that began during the 2013 elections. Between 1988 and 2013, the city was simpler to predict. It kept returning large numbers of candidates from MQM to the National and the Sindh assemblies. The PPP was the city’s second largest electoral outfit, even though it has remained to be the largest party in the rest of Sindh.

During the 2013 elections, the PTI overtook the PPP and become Karachi’s second largest party. Then, during the 2018 elections, the PTI went further to become the city’s largest party, replacing the MQM which produced its worst results. But the PTI’s weak performance in the centre, and almost none in Karachi, is more-than-likely to see it lose its position in the city in the next elections which are expected to take place before the PTI government completes its 5-year term in the centre. The PTI’s disastrous performance may also affect the electoral fortunes of its allies. Therefore, it will be tough for the MQM to revive itself in the city. Delimitation has chalked large areas that are now of mixed ethnic groups. Recent by-elections saw the PPP usurp PTI votes in the city.

The daughter rises: Maryam Nawaz, vice-president of PML-N and daughter of Nawaz Sharif

The PPP’s performance in by-polls in Karachi has encouraged the PML-N and JI to also capitalise on the disillusionment that is sweeping across those who had cast their votes for the PTI. The MQM, being part of the PTI’s coalition government, is in a fix. The only way it can crawl back to achieving any kind of trust and respectability among the city’s Mohajir majority is if all of its factions reunite on a single platform. At the moment, Karachi just might have one of the largest number of undecided voters. Parties will be targeting these – as the PPP did in the last two by-elections in the city.

As such, the PML-N has decided to retain a centrist position on most issues, because this position is vital if the party wants to pursue its economic and foreign policy agendas. And even though the now-somewhat-muted right-wingers of the party worry that this may cost them votes in their conservative constituencies, recent by-elections suggest this is not the case. The threat of outfits such as the TLP usurping these votes has gradually receded, or was overestimated.

Rightist outbursts: Conviction or ploy?
Recently, the PML-N’s Captain Safdar Awan was forced to leave a gathering organised by the TLP. Apparently, he had visited the event on an invitation. But, instead of being welcomed, he faced humiliation when a speaker described him as a scoundrel. A charged crowd agreed, and Safdar had to make a hasty exit. Safdar is married to Maryam Nawaz, the vice-president of the PML-N and daughter of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Though Nawaz and Maryam have been gradually shifting the PML-N’s ideological disposition from right to centre, Safdar has continued to be a vocal supporter of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.

He is known to visit the last resting place of Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi fanatic who assassinated the former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in 2011. Qadri was sentenced to death by the country’s highest court. In 2016, he was executed. His execution became a catalyst for the formation of the TLP. Qadri was executed during Nawaz Sharif’s third government. Yet, Sharif’s son-in-law Safdar has often lionised Qadri and continues to use Islamist rhetoric similar to the one used by outfits such as the TLP. One is not sure how much of this is emerging from genuine conviction and how much of it is political posturing. Safdar’s lifestyle and appearance are ‘modern,’ and his wife Maryam has shaped herself as a progressive politician and ‘moderate’ Muslim.

Safdar: Conviction or Ploy? The debate continues...

It is likely that Safdar has been allowed by the party to continue playing the ‘religious card’ so as not to alienate PML-N’s conservative constituencies, especially in various regions of central and northern Punjab. Indeed, in the 1990s, this card was at the core of the party’s ideological disposition. However, in the last decade or so, and especially during the third PML-N regime (2013-2018), Nawaz had moved closer to becoming a ‘centrist.’ This shift doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted the party’s electoral fortunes much. The PML-N remains Punjab’s largest party.

During the controversial 2018 elections, some observers were of the view that the TLP had been successful in usurping a large chunk of PML-N votes, which aided the PTI to make deep inroads into Punjab. But this assumption seems to have been a bit misplaced.

The PML-N has won almost all by-elections in Punjab, at times also toppling the PTI from seats that the latter had won in 2018. Statistics of these by-polls suggest that the TLP was more of a threat to the PTI than the PML-N. The same statistics are also pointing towards another curious phenomenon. As the TLP’s street power and rowdyism increase, its vote-bank, compared to 2018, has actually shrunk. Of course, this can change during a full-fledged general election, but the party is unlikely to stop the PML-N’s expected electoral juggernaut in the next elections.

As the ratings of PM Imran Khan continue to plunge, and the economy is showing no signs of recovery, the PML-N is quite sure it will sweep the next election. So are most experts. If so, then why does Safdar have to make appearances in which he boasts of being a proud defender of Islam, using language that more-than-borders on hate speech and outright bigotry? Who is his audience? Even though he often gets flak from the PML-N’s more moderate and liberal supporters, the party itself remains mum about his sudden outbursts.

Is the party concerned that the TLP may still pose a threat to it in some vital constituencies? I can’t see how.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.