(Don’t deem every forest to be deserted; a leopard might be asleep in one of those.)
The warning in the Persian verse is relevant to the wishes and dilemmas of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz as it prepares to receive its leader, Nawaz Sharif, back in Pakistan on October 21, after almost four years of stay in London. Now that Imran Khan is behind the bars along with his many politically salient lieutenants (particularly Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Parvez Elahi) and the organisational structure of his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is in tatters, Nawaz Sharif and his acolytes seem to believe that the PML-N is the only politically viable option the voters have, particularly in the Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hazara division.
This belief rests on a simple political calculation. They are confident that Pakistan Peoples Party cannot regain its lost electoral support in the Punjab in the upcoming elections and that a new party, spearheaded by some renegades from the PTI such as Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, has not taken off the way its founders and facilitators might have expected. They also assume that the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, which polled the third highest number of votes in 2018 election in the Punjab – behind the PTI and the PMLN – is no longer a potent electoral force even as it retains a massive support base among the working class on account of the causes it champions.
The biggest problem in this calculation is that it takes voters for granted – but that can be discussed later. First, let us look at the second part of the verse cited above.
What kind of dormant fears, threats and dangers are lurking in the electoral jungle that the PML-N should be alert to but is apparently not? The answer to this question has four parts: the judiciary, the time, the establishment and the economy.
How will Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan react to Nawaz Sharif’s return? He is a three-time convict whose term in prison was suspended in November 2019 when he was granted bail to receive medical treatment in London. So, when he lands back in Pakistan, will he go back to jail? Or will the courts overturn his conviction, allowing him to freely rally his supporters across Pakistan?
The judicial relief he needs cannot materialise unless his legal team finds a way around his conviction in the Panama Papers case heard by a bench of the Supreme Court. A law that his party passed in May this year to give him the right to have the verdict reviewed was annulled by the court a few weeks later. Will the court allow him to launch an appeal against that conviction?
Nawaz Sharif stands a better chance of winning a reprieve in the remaining two cases. His appeals in those cases are pending for hearing at the Islamabad High Court which has already exonerated his daughter and son-in-law in one of those. However, he still needs to surrender to the judicial authorities before he can get a similar reprieve.
Many commentators are of the view that Nawaz Sharif has successfully navigated similar judicial minefields in the past to become prime minister for the third time in 2013. He did not, after all, go to jail on his return to Pakistan from London in 2007 despite being a convict sentenced for life. And, within two years, he was a clean man again.
His supporters argue that the courts only did the right thing to put the case against him in the judicial dustbin because, they aver, it was politically motivated. His opponents vehemently oppose this point of view. His wealth, his long stints in power since the early 1980s, his strong connections in the bureaucracy and the superior judiciary and his ability to cut behind the scene deals (and keep them secret), they argue, were the real reason for his acquittal in 2009. Non-Punjabi politicians facing similar judicial troubles often complain that he could get away with everything because he comes from the most politically dominant part of the country.
Some observers also point towards another factor. They say that the then chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, was enormously popular in 2009 due to his resistance against the regime headed by Gen Pervez Musharraf. He could do anything and nobody dared raise a question – not even his fellow judges. His most trusted fellow judge Khalil-ur Rehman Ramday had publicly known ties with Nawaz Sharif and others on the bench would say ‘aye’ whenever their chief signalled them to do so.
In contrast, today the superior judiciary is divided, almost down the middle. And none of the two sides in this divided house of justice has an unqualified soft corner for Nawaz Sharif. A quick and comprehensive judicial relief for him, therefore, is not a certain outcome.
Time is also of the essence here. Remember, even in the most favourable circumstances in 2008-13 – when both the highest court and the military high command supported him in his campaign to get a third stint in power - six long years intervened between his return from London and his ascent to the prime ministerial chair. It is also important to note here that Justice Chaudhry’s court took six months to overturn his conviction. There appear to be no compulsions for the current crop of judges to turbocharge the hearing of his cases while not affording the same facility to other litigants – including those associated with the PTI – whose cases are pending before them.
So, going by the ECP’s assurance with regard to the likely election schedule (January 2024), will he be able to secure judicial clearance in time to run in the upcoming election? Supposing that he somehow manages to overcome this hurdle, how well disposed will the establishment be towards his fourth stint as prime minister of Pakistan? There is clearly no definitive answer to this.
There are signs and suggestions that his party is getting a better treatment under the caretaker government than, for instance, the PTI and the PPP. The former is facing large-scale persecution (and prosecution); the latter is complaining that it is being denied a level electoral field even in its stronghold, Sindh. The caretaker cabinet in Islamabad includes people known to have been Nawaz Sharif’s confidantes. This could not have happened had the establishment not allowed it to happen, some analysts say. This, they say, is the clearest indication that the PML-N is being facilitated to win the next election.
The logic of this argument is hard to refute. If the PTI has to be kept out of power and if the PPP cannot be trusted (or entrusted) with it then who else is left to form the next government? The PML-N, of course.
The voters, on the contrary, appear to be indifferent to these calculations. "It’s the economy, stupid!", they seem to be saying to the PML-N -- as well as to all other political parties. Their message: Give us a practicable formula to address the grand mess we are in, and we might vote for you in droves.. Nawaz Sharif and his party, though, are responding to these calls for fixing Pakistan’s economic problems with tone-deaf solutions. If Ishaq Dar is to be their poster boy for economic recovery and if only somebody from within the Sharif clan is to be in charge of the Punjab under Nawaz Sharif’s next premiership, then this is certainly not a formula to win the hearts and minds of an electorate battered and wearied by a tanking economy. Dar, indeed, is the only person to have served as Pakistan’s finance minister three times. He has fared badly on all occasions. And Hamza Sharif’s brief stint as Punjab’s chief minister as well as Maryam Nawaz’s unchallenged control of the PML-N in the Punjab are enough reasons for many urban middle class voters to shun its dynastic politics.
Admittedly, it is not possible to gauge people’s voting preferences four to six months ahead of the polls. There is more than sufficient time for them to change their electoral choices more than once. Also, these choices are going to be made on the basis of several factors – inflation, unemployment and a total absence of governance being a few of them. Their choices will also be premised on which party is running in election in their constituency and who is its candidate. If Imran Khan and his PTI are allowed to run in the coming election, they will give Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N a real run for their money.
Nawaz Sharif no longer has a monopoly over political victimhood narrative because those supporting Imran Khan and his party are also making a seemingly successful public pitch that their leader and his fans and followers are being persecuted like no political leader or political party have been persecuted before. If electoral choices – at least in the Punjab – are to be made on the basis of these competing victimhood narratives, Imran Khan and the PTI might carry the day because their persecution is happening now while that of Nawaz Sharif took place a good six years ago – an aeon given the short memory the voters are known to have.
In between these years, Nawaz Sharif’s party has also had around 16 miserable months in power. It could not prevent Pakistan’s economy from floundering and avert the decline of its institutions of governance. The PML-N has also waivered in its mantra for mobilisation. In the run up to the 2018 election, it raised the ‘give respect to the vote’ slogan. In 2019, it changed tack and joined hands with the PTI and the PPP to extend the tenure of then army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa irrespective of the fact that Nawaz Sharif had earlier vehemently opposed such an extension. Nawaz Sharif once again wants some heads to roll for “conspiring” to disqualify him and derail his government in 2017. The conspirators, according to him, include two former chief justices of Pakistan, a future chief justice of Pakistan and two retired generals.
Can this narrative help him carry out a successful mobilisation of voters? If it does, he certainly cannot expect to win the support of the establishment for his fresh bid to power.
Instead of having to venture into this thicket, Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N would want the electoral arena emptied of all the wild beasts that can threaten or challenge them. They are, therefore, hoping that Imran Khan and his party are forced to stay out. They also seem to believe that a longer than usual term for the caretaker government – coupled with its anti-expansionary economic policies – will help voters forget the PML-N’s dismal failure to address their economic problems during its just-concluded tenure in power. This short memory, too, is a double-edged sword. It, indeed, may work better in favour of Imran Khan and his party – or whatever part of it is allowed to take part in the polls – than it will do in PML-N’s favour.
But if these challengers are removed from the electoral arena to give Nawaz Sharif a free run of it, he must not assume that all is – and will be – well for him in the political jungle. That the likes of former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and former senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar are planning to launch a new party should be a serious cause of concern for Nawaz Sharif. Their party may not win big on the polling day but it has the potential to damage PML-N’s purported electoral narrative of political victimhood and lampoon its latest government’s economic performance with the precision of an insider informant.
If the PML-N does not tackle this challenge seriously, this beast of discontent – having nestled uneasily for long within in its own womb – may devour its leader’s ambition to become the prime minister of Pakistan for the fourth time.
The writer is a journalist, journalism trainer and news media developmentpractitioner