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October 1, 2023

PML-N looks forward to Nawaz Sharif’s return to the country on October 21

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brief visit by former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif and the shifting of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan from Attock to Adiala Jail have caused ripples in the country’s politics. Many believe that the alignments in the political arena have shifted after Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif issued a remarkable statement regarding the need for accountability of certain judges and generals in national interest.

Talking to The News on Sunday, people close to the Sharifs have said that Nawaz was convinced of the need for a clear narrative to win over the masses. “At one stage, the party leaders decided to project the PML-N achievements during its 2013-2018 tenure. This was reflected in the statements of some PML-N leaders made during press conferences and talk shows who claimed that this was a golden period in Pakistan’s history in terms of economic development. However, they soon sensed that the narrative was not working. It was then decided that Nawaz Sharif should promise a programme for overcoming the country’s economic difficulties and mitigating the masses’ misery. However, the League think tank concluded that promises will not work given the current economic conditions. Sharif then decided to go with a tested narrative about accountability of those who had disrupted the democratic course.”

After he was disqualified for public office, Nawaz Sharif had put forward a similar narrative. Back then, it had received considerable support from the people of Pakistan, including some left-wing activists. As a result, the PML-N swept almost all by-polls held in the Punjab between 2018 and 2021.

When the PML-N later shifted its narrative, its popularity nosedived, whereas the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, which adopted the same narrative after losing its government, started winning by-elections.

Sharif has announced his decision to return to the country on October 21. Insiders say Sharif’s narrative of holding retired judges and generals accountable is not acceptable to the powers-that-be. It is said that this message was relayed to Shahbaz Sharif during his brief return to the country. He was informed that if Nawaz continued with his current narrative, his political future would be unpredictable. Shahbaz then made a dash to London. There has been a mysterious silence over the issue ever since.

Mian Javed Latif, a PML-N stalwart and close aide to Nawaz Sharif, has since then made an intriguing statement: “If an institution does not want to hold accountable the elements responsible for the 2017 political fiasco, they can leave the issue aside. However, those involved in planning and attacking the military and civil installations on May 9 must be brought to justice.” The statement was seen by most commentators as indicating that the PML-N was ready to step back from its aggressive stance.

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After being disqualified for public office, Nawaz Sharif had used the same narrative. Back then, it had received considerable support from the people of Pakistan, including some left-wing activists. As a result the PML-N swept almost all by-polls held in the Punjab between 2018 and 2021.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Imran Khan has been shifted to Adiala Jail. Last week, his lawyer had told this scribe: “I met Khan at the Attock Jail and found him to be in high spirits. He told me not to pursue the petition for shifting him to Adiala Jail, saying that he was happy in Attock Jail.”

The petition had been filed several weeks ago in the Islamabad High Court. On September 25, the court took up the petition and ordered that Khan be shifted to Adiala Jail. “This development is a matter of concern to the PML-N which has been seeking action against Khan ‘in accordance with the law’. The development was seen as a signal from the powerful quarters that if Nawaz Sharif continued with his harsh stance on accountability some measure of support for Khan could not be ruled out,” party sources said.

Some political analysts believe that Khan has been shifted to Adiala Jail not for his convenience but for those who want to negotiate a political deal with him. In the past, the establishment has held similar negotiations with Asif Zardari, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and some other political leaders housed at Adiala Jail.

Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, chairman of the Senate Committee on Defence, agreed that contacts between Khan and the Establishment were likely. In an interview with a private channel, he said that an important agreement between powerful quarters and the jailed PTI chairman was being negotiated. “It might result in the mother of all deals.”

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This is not good news for the PML-N. If such an understanding is reached, Sharif’s vision of becoming the prime minister for a fourth time could be in danger. Even his return might become risky as he faces the prospect of incarceration for a long period upon his return to Pakistan.

A highly informed source, privy to the political decision-making, tells TNS: “Chances of a fourth stint as premier are slim. Even, the Punjab is likely to slip away from the PML-N.”

On September 26, Maryam Nawaz returned to Lahore from London. Party supporters warmly welcomed her at the Lahore airport, chanting slogans in support of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N.

During her four-day visit to London, the PMLN chief organiser had held important meetings with several delegations. Following her return, Maryam Nawaz is expected to oversee the preparations for welcoming Nawaz Sharif back to the country on October 21.

PML-N spokesperson Azma Bukhari has said: “Nawaz Sharif believes that the people of Pakistan are the source of all legitimate power. He will return on the announced date and face the courts in accordance with the laws and the constitution.”

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Political horizon