Covering the flanks – Raoof Hasan

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It had been on the anvil for long. One knew it was coming. People talked of it with conflicting feelings. Some were lost in pain while others took it as the culmination of a natural process that dismantles fiefdoms raised on wobbly foundations of personal allegiances.

The split became evident when Shahbaz Sharif secured bail and started trying to take control of the party with authority next only to the convict-absconder Nawaz Sharif. His initial salvo was for forging unity among all parties of the opposition, both at the PDM and the parliament level. The initiative was received with visible dismay by the anointed one, Maryam, who seemed to have literally banished her uncle from the corridors of the PDM asking him to confine his unity mantra to parliament alone. She categorically stated that the PPP and ANP were no longer part of the PDM and they would not be welcome unless they apologised.

There is much speculation that, henceforth, one is going to see two parallel narratives emerging from the PML-N stables: one, reconciliatory – orchestrated by Shahbaz, and the other combative – led by Maryam. The party is likely to be divided along these lines in following their respective leader of choice. So, Shahbaz may have some supporting his call for unity and Maryam may have some hailing his outpourings smitten with venom and hate.

For those who have had an inside view of the family situation, this division had been lurking for a long time. It did not materialise earlier simply because Shahbaz and his camp believed that they did not have the requisite political standing to peddle their mantra of reconciliation. That is why they opted to survive in the shadow of the elder brother, but they never closed their eyes completely to the need for asserting their presence and that of the counter narrative. Whether that time has actually arrived depends on a number of things which are likely to take shape in the near future, most importantly the state of the cases pending against the younger brother who is presently out on bail.

As a matter of fact, the outstanding cases are a principal reason for this drive for reconciliation. Shahbaz knows that he has virtually no defence and, in a non-partisan adjudication, he would not be able to escape punishment – including the feared ineligibility from electoral politics in the future. This is a possibility that he would like to avoid under all circumstances, no matter what be the price he may have to pay in the bargain. So, is the time come for a split among the two brothers and their respective progeny? It remains a tantalising offer for analyses and all kind of mouth-watering projections which, in the Shakespearian tradition, could even be compared with a ‘to be or not to be’ syndrome.

Much that Shahbaz and clan may want to break the chains of subservience, there are serious constraints impacting their options, one of which may be the survival of the PML-N as a political party of any substance. It may not show in the results of the recently-held by-elections in Punjab, but the party has taken a lot of battering because of the positioning the elder brother and his daughter have adopted and which they constantly appear to be promoting. Some elders of the party have also warned of negative fallout.

In an area which contributes almost 70 percent of the military’s manpower, and where virtually every household has a martyr or a ghazi to celebrate, it is well nigh impossible to prosper with a firebrand anti-military narrative. So, it could be that, as part of a well-crafted strategy, Shahbaz may be the one chosen to cover the flanks in case fallout with the electorate may have to be addressed.

At this stage, nothing can be counted as certain and nothing can be left out. It is the beginning of what might unfurl to be a major breaking of ranks among the two brothers, or it could be an effort to exploit both ends of a strategy to ensure collectively holding on to their much-trumpeted support in the largest province of the country. In any eventuality, the PML-N-inclined electorate may have two horses to choose from: one advocating a break with the traditional brand of politics, and the other emerging as the champion of the status-quo ranks. They will continue pleading their respective narrative while staying within the larger framework of a united party. In order to further stymie the prospect of implosion within, low-intensity subversion may be generated as an ominous strategy.

It could, therefore, be said that a clear break among the two may not materialise at this stage as that can adversely impact the current, though highly exaggerated, standing of the party through an intemperate parting of ways. But what cannot be ruled out in the long run is that pressure would be maintained by the Shahbaz camp for adopting a reconciliatory approach of working with the establishment (read: military) as has been the tradition of the party, and which is also his personal need given the cases against him.

For the government and its allies, the challenge is to break this facade of a cunning contrivance of heads they win, tails they win, too. This did not materialise in the recently held by-elections which led to pompous claims regarding the continuing popularity of the PML-N. This myth has to be busted if the country has to break the shackles of the status-quo politics and policies.

Alongside robust promotion of numerous groundbreaking developmental projects that the government has unfurled in quick sequence, it may be time to get back to the drawing board to chalk out a political strategy to combat the rampant scourge of fabrication and falsehood.

The writer is the special assistant to the PM on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute.

Twitter: @RaoofHasan