Maryam Nawaz is considered by many to be her father’s true political heir
aryam Nawaz, recovering from a throat surgery in Geneva, has plenty of things on her plate. Recently, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, also president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has appointed her its senior vice president, and assigned her the difficult task of reorganising the party.
The News on Sunday (TNS) spoke to several PML-N leaders to gauge key perceptions: Does she possess the leadership qualities needed to meet the expectations? What are her strengths and weaknesses? Some of the following observations come from this scribe’s own reporting.
Maryam, the daughter of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is considered by many as her father’s true political heir. She came to political limelight after Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister for the third time. Even before Sharif took oath in 2013, she was seen in important party meetings and pressers. She established herself as a key player in Pakistani politics when her father, facing corruption charges, was ousted from office by the Supreme Court in 2017. During Sharif’s journey to Lahore from Islamabad via GT Road, she accompanied him.
The PML-N social media wing may be her biggest contribution for the party so far. She had sensed the importance of social media well before 2013 and planned to establish the wing that year. Through it, she defended her father and the party. She also promoted the party’s Vote koe izzat doe (Respect the ballot) narrative through social media and in her speeches at mammoth rallies.
When the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government victimised the Sharif family and some PML-N leaders by instituting politically motivated cases against them, she proved her courage by challenging powerful quarters. When the party was struggling in its 2018 election campaign because of Nawaz Sharif’s absence as he was in the UK with his critically ill wife, the father and daughter decided to return. Upon their return they were arrested. Maryam spent weeks in the National Accountability Bureau’s lockups, and months in Kot Lakhpat Jail. This added to the list of sacrifices rendered by her in pursuit of her politics. Some analysts see the willingness to face such hardships as a prerequisite for a significant political career.
Maryam, also displayed a remarkable power to galvanise and motivate her supporters. Because of this, she was reckoned amongst BBC’s 100 Women and The New York Times‘ 11 Most Influential Women. While there had been no plan or preparation for a political career during her early life, the circumstances and her courage have brought her to the political arena.
However, these qualities may not be enough to reorganise the party in the current situation. Many of the party’s old workers are disgruntled because of the recent price-hike and the absence of several top leaders. On the other hand, many people continue to buy Imran Khan’s narrative despite obvious U-turns.
Some of Maryam’s weaknesses became apparent at public appearances and news conferences. It appears that she has a habit of directing party leaders rather than inspiring them. This weakens the leadership quality. She has five or six – rather naïve – deputies and managers, who function as her eyes and ears. The only senior leaders she listens to are Nawaz Sharif and Pervaiz Rashid. This attitude has kept other senior leaders like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Khawaja Asif, Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Saad Rafiq and their political wisdom distant. The party, she has to reorganise, had gained its strengthen when her father and other leaders undertook intense political activity, meeting and listening to the people in city streets and villages for three decades. She will have to put in similar efforts and must develop direct connections with the masses and grassroots workers. This cannot be achieved by relying on reports from half a dozen political assistants.
Maryam also needs to focus on the youth, especially young women, who might add a good size to the PMLN vote bank. For this she will have to activate the PML-N’s women and youth wings.
The PML-N social media wing has sought to counter the anti-corruption narrative of Imran Khan and the PTI by coming up with slogans like ghari chor (watch thief). She should ask her social media wing to build narratives instead to strengthen and highlight the party’s achievements in the past and under the present government. Focusing on the opponent alone will not have a significant impact on voters. It is pertinent to mention here that the PML-N seems to have lost its Vote koe izzat doe narrative and failed to come up with a popular alternative.
Last but not the least, Maryam may have to change her party’s style of handling the media. Her father and uncle are known for taking questions at their pressers from only familiar and friendly journalists. At her news conferences too those managing the media have tended to allow only select journalists to ask questions. Also, Maryam seldom gives interviews. This has allowed her opponents to promote the impression that she lacks confidence in her political acumen. She must dispel the impression by courageously facing the media and her critics.
Direct contact with the masses will be key to her success. Whether she is prepared for this and more is the question.
The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher