Shaky PML-N likely to re-embrace ‘narrative’ after AJK rout

August 02, 2021

As the adage goes, a week is a long time in politics. And it is true in the context of PMLN buffeted by the AJK and Sialkot election debacle. It has forced the party to revisit its strategy and as...

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As the adage goes, a week is a long time in politics. And it is true in the context of PMLN buffeted by the AJK and Sialkot election debacle. It has forced the party to revisit its strategy and as such is on the cusp of waging a political campaign against the establishment.

In the run-up to AJK elections, the PMLN made huge efforts from holding well-attended rallies, Maryam Nawaz directly leading a robust campaigning and to Nawaz Sharif delivering speeches from London.

However, it was swept by PTI with PPP trailing behind. Asides the reasons for PML-N's defeat in the AJK elections, the party leadership suddenly looks shaky and reads the PTI success in AJK differently. The party head Shahbaz Sharif was rumoured to have offered resignation but later a spokesperson dispelled these rumours.

The PML-N is riven with the fear of the possibility of a conceivable win of PTI in the next elections for another term. This is a nightmare scenario and it coincides with two latest developments within the party: first, Shahbaz Sharif seems politically overtaxed due to the failure of his dovish policy of reconciliation. Secondly, confidence in the ability of his leadership to galvanise the public has faltered in the party.

After his bail in the NAB cases, Shahbaz Sharif – starting to lead the party with a reconciliatory note – set out against a different backdrop:

The party supremo Mian Nawaz Sharif remarkably turned around his political career during the last three years of the PTI government. He resuscitated his political fortune rising from a lowest moral and political point–post Panama verdict – and raised his position to a most popular politician of the GT Road.

He cleverly helped restore his battered image in the perception domain from his starting point when he marked his political campaign launched through the GT Road despite opposition from his closed party circles. Also what helped was his two frontal attacks, ie 1) blaming the establishment (couched in "Vote Ko Izzat Do" narrative) and 2) launching firebrand daughter, Maryam Nawaz.

These two levers changed the political environment in his favour. Hence, he introduced his other trump card i.e. soft and reconciliator Shahbaz Sharif to leverage the gains of his political maneuver.

Nawaz Sharif brought the estb under huge pressure by creating new realities: he pushed back them by name calling. Similarly he waited out PTI Govt for three years and let it bleed on many fronts, blunting its main lever: the estab was perceptibly forced to go slow in backing PM Imran Khan both by design and default.

This perception gained currency when Imran Khan did not support the estb on India policy, alleged basing issue, economy and the removal of CM Buzdar where the estb was believed to be seeking his backing.

According to many watchers, the estb does not support Imran Khan on, for example, not creating a fall back option, communication with PPP and relief to opposition. The divergence created an impression that Nawaz Sharif would create a space for PMLN by pitching Shahbaz Sharif as a second best option after the PTI burned out.

Even with Shahbaz Sharif leading the party, he assumed a dominant role. So he transitioned from condemned figure to the most popular leader of GT Road.

Paradoxically, he can still potentially remove the Imran Government any time giving the nod to the Jahangir Tareen group with the condition of removing the defection clause. With JKT group reciprocating in the current milieu, it may be a remote possibility.

Back to the prevailing undercurrents within the party post AJK and Sialkot losses, Nawaz Sharif is reportedly about to finalise the contours of a new strategy setting aside Shahbaz Shari's plea of playing soft peddle.

Nawaz Sharif and his daughter have concluded that Shahbaz Sharif has failed to achieve any meaningful space for the party politically, could not squeeze in the PTI Govt to take off pressure in NAB cases and above all no reconciliation has happened with the estb.

"If it were to have any chance to win the next elections, deter estb in supporting the PTI for the next five years and preempting rivals forming the next Punjab Govt, the PMLN has to revise its strategy", said an informed party leader.

For this revision of strategy, the plan has been submitted to Nawaz Sharif and he is going to give final nod and take top party leadership on board. The baseline of this plan is to shift the focus from PTI Govt to politically attack the estb as "alleged sponsor" of the PTI.

Nawaz Sharif would seek to off balance the estb forcing it for a "retreat" by removing old faces within, and adopting a course correction.

As far as Shahbaz Sharif, he is unlikely to agree to this strategy for the following reasons: Shahbaz Sharif has to get rid of the NAB pressure as an immediate priority. He may stay away from active politics for some time, as he is failing to deliver what is being asked from him. Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz are rebellious against his soft narrative. If Nawaz Sharif launches a full throttle attack against the estb, he cannot afford to own it.

Additionally, going kinetic against the estb is fraught with serious consequences for the overall party prospects:

It would render Nawaz Sharif more frustrated and hence isolated. It will send out a message of hard line politics against the temperament of electables of the GT Road. This strategy will further reinforce the view in the estb that PMLN is becoming another Awami League; Maryam Nawaz is increasingly looking like Sheikh Hasina Wajid and Nawaz Sharif is incrementally positioning to be like the MQM head, Altaf Hussain. Any public protest campaign shifting to Pindi against the centre of gravity i.e. the estb, by a predominantly Punjab-based political party (unlike fridge group like PTM) may invoke serious reaction, including some form of deterrence, benefiting the PTI.

In a nutshell, the PML-N leadership is facing a dilemma: adopt a hard line posture against the estb, hence risk being relegated to pariah status in the foreseeable future or wait out the PTI to outlive its utility and thus chip in as evolved PML-N to lead. For now, the freedom of PMLN's political behaviour is total. Therefore, the leadership must make a wise choice.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets Jan_Achakzai

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