he announcement that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz chief is returning to the country has caused quite a stir in the otherwise dull political scene. While the constituent parties of the almost defunct Pakistan Democratic Movement have ceded political space to the powers that be, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan and major party leaders are in jail facing scores of cases.
The PDM regime had to take unpopular economic decisions to secure the International Monetary Fund bailout package. Compliance with the IMF conditions resulted in more misery for the people already burdened with financial hardship. All major political parties have lost credibility among the public. Most of the burden is on the PML-N leaders as they chose to lead the government after securing the prime minister’s office. They believe that they have had to suffer the most as people remained focused on Shahbaz Sharif who, they think, pushed the poor into greater misery through his management of the economy. Many party workers and second rung leaders have been asking Nawaz Sharif to return home in the hope that his return might help them win some of the lost ground in the Punjab.
The political rivals of the PML-N are now questioning the wisdom of Nawaz Sharif’s return. Some are accusing the PML-N of having reached a ‘secret deal’ with the establishment to pave the way for his return to power. Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto recently targeted the PML-N in his speeches and statements. He has complained that his party is not getting a level playing field. Is the PML-N courting the establishment once again?
In 2017, having been disqualified for undeclared assets, Nawaz Sharif had taken to the road to march from Islamabad to his hometown Lahore in protest against his disqualification. He had raised the “Respect the vote” slogan and lashed out at judges and at those who he called their “handlers” and held them responsible for ouster of elected prime ministers.
Later, addressing a 2020 public meeting in Gujranwala, Nawaz Sharif had hit out at the establishment and named the then Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and ISI DG Faiz Hameed, holding them responsible for his ouster and bringing Imran Khan to power. He had asked, “Why are elected prime ministers not allowed to complete their five-year terms?” His narrative had won him considerable public support.
However, the anti-establishment narrative came to a halt when his younger brother – along with other parties of the PDM – joined hands to facilitate the establishment to bring about a no-confidence motion against arch rival Imran Khan. Nawaz then allowed his brother to become the prime minister although the latter has openly expressed his allegiance to the establishment. In fact, Shahbaz always seems willing to go the extra-mile to appease the establishment. During this time, almost all cases against PML-N leaders launched during the PTI rule and earlier were either dropped or decided in their favour. This was besides the introduction of major legislation in the parliament.
On the other hand, in a recent address to party leaders via video link from London, Nawaz Sharif once again levelled serious allegations against some generals and judges, accusing them of direct involvement in ousting him from power to launch the ‘Project Imran Khan’. “Their crime is bigger than a murder offence. Pardoning them will be an injustice to the nation. They don’t deserve a pardon,” Nawaz Sharif said, promising accountability.
Most political analysts see his statement as a feeler before his arrival in Pakistan. A majority of PML-N leaders may not agree with his proposal to prosecute former judges and generals. However, some close associates say Nawaz Sharif has firm plans, and a ‘legal roadmap’ has been chalked out to hold those behind his ouster in 2017 accountable.
“When Nawaz Sharif, having come to power in 2013, decided to initiate legal action against former president Gen Pervez Musharraf for subverting the constitution, it was a big mistake,” a senior leader of the PML-N said on a TV programme the other day. The PML-N leader was replying to a question whether Nawaz Sharif will again charge senior military officers and judges who, Nawaz believes, were the major culprits behind the political and economic mess the country is in today. The party has announced his return from self-exile in London on October 21, pinning hopes of electoral victory once Nawaz Sharif returns. The PML-N says it will secure a protective bail for him before his arrival in Lahore next month. The party has planned a historic welcome.
Political rivals say that the PML-N has detected favourable signals from the establishment. Some of the corruption cases dropped as a result of amendments made to the NAB Ordinance have been restored by the Supreme Court which has held that the legislation violated the constitution.
The PML-N had decided in 2022 to join political intrigue to dethrone Imran Khan through a historic no-confidence motion. The party leaders wanted to see their arch rival, Imran Khan, in jail. It is now said to have good relations with the establishment. This perception might cost the party dearly in times to come. The party has sensed trouble. This is why Nawaz Sharif has been asked to return home.
Most of the political pundits today believe that Nawaz Sharif’s returns home will not cause a huge shift on the political scene. The shifting narrative, among other issues, may have lost the party political ground. It might take a long time to recover.
The writer is a senior broadcast journalist. He has worked with several news channels in Pakistan