Going forward By Najam Sethi

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Nawaz Sharif has finally broken his silence. Significantly, he has not minced his words by laying into the Miltablishment for destabilizing and undermining the national consensus. Many questions arise. What provoked him to do so? Why did the PTI government allow him to do so? Has his anti-Miltablishment speech helped or hurt PMLN’s prospects? Will the PMLN split between pro and anti-Miltablishment factions led by each brother respectively as predicted by the old weathercock Sheikh Rashid?

It has long been rumoured that Nawaz Sharif’s silent exile was based on some sort of “understanding” between Shahbaz Sharif and the Miltablishment whereby, in exchange for supporting certain core Miltablishment-leadership requirements, the PMLN leadership would be given relatively “safe passage” to a fairer political dispensation. Indeed, that was the sole reason why Imran Khan has been relentlessly attacking the PMLN leadership for seeking an NRO and constantly trying to sabotage any such budding relationship. In the event, a fresh crop of NAB victimization and harassment cases against the top leaders of the PMLN, including the pro-Miltablishment ones led by Shahbaz Sharif, has eroded his pro-Miltablishment narrative and strengthened Nawaz Sharif’s anti-Miltablishment stance.

The journey began last November when Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s long march against the “Selectors” was undermined by Shahbaz Sharif’s narrative and is now headed in the direction of another long march by Maulana Fazal supported by Nawaz Sharif’s narrative. The outcome must be clear before next March when Senate elections are scheduled. If the Imran-Miltab (IM) alliance survives, it will spell the death knell for the PPP and PMLN by giving IM an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, enabling them to amend the Constitution at will and cement one party IM rule in the country. So it is now or never.

Imran Khan thought of banning Nawaz Sharif’s speech but changed his mind when Intel reports revealed it was going to be anti-Miltab instead of anti-IK. The PTI argued that the Miltab would react badly and swiftly crucify the PMLN, consolidating the IM. But it didn’t reckon on the tremendous approval received by the speech from the supporters of the PMLN who have been revived like never before. And it didn’t expect the newly minted Pakistan Democratic Movement to get a vital energy boost with the handshake between Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal ur Rahman.

The PMLN’s prospects have brightened by Nawaz Sharif’s intervention. There is significant anti-IM sentiment that stretches from the periphery in Balochistan and FATA to Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In the event of the PDM taking off, the Miltab will be directly pitted against this popular sentiment, a domestic conflict prospect it can ill afford as the guardian of the national security consensus in view of the external conflicts east and west of the country. Therefore the likelihood is that, despite IK’s bluster and the MIltab’s avowed “same page” insistence, the Miltab may take a step back and reassess its options going forward. Look out for telltale signs of NAB softening and Court relief for PMLN leaders. A crackdown, on the other hand, will push the country into a constitutional abyss and paralyze both economy and society that are already struggling to breathe amidst Covid-19.

In short, in view of the dead end facing the opposition, the revival of political space for the opposition is directly proportional to its do-or-die aggressive stance rather than the other way round. So we should anticipate some doors to slowly open, however discreetly. By the same yardstick, the political space for the PTI government is likely to diminish since the Miltab may hold it responsible for pushing the opposition into a dead end that makes the Miltab a direct target of the political confrontation.

Sheikh Rashid is frothing at the mouth. Gone is his smirking confidence. The revelation of secret contacts between the soft PMLN leaders and the Miltab leadership only confirms last-ditch efforts to avoid a showdown that would not be good for either faction. No one is surprised that such contacts exist. In fact, PMLN supporters’ belief in Nawaz Sharif’s narrative is strengthened by the failure of such meetings to redress this unfair situation.

Naturally, much will now depend on the ability of the PDM to get its act together. The PPP is still the weakest link in this alliance. The litany of its opportunism has been evident from the fall of the PMLN-led government in Balochistan, the election of the chairman of the Senate, and the backtracking on the vote of no-confidence against him later. Its difficulty lies in the fact that, unlike the PMLN whose discomfort is confined to that of its leaders, it also risks losing its government in Sindh if the coming confrontation doesn’t quickly yield in favour of the PDM.

Nawaz Sharif and Fazalur Rahman have arrived at a juncture where they have nothing to lose except, metaphorically speaking, their chains. So they have opted for a showdown. Going forward, Asif Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif could do worse by not seeing the writing on the wall.