Politics’ winged chariot By Arifa Noor

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A substitute shines brightly as a king, Until a king be by” — Shakespeare

THE tensions within the PML-N are growing stronger by the day. Last week was dominated by the multiple news stories attributed to ‘sources’ about the absence of Shehbaz Sharif and others from the party’s organisational (or rather re-organisational) meetings. In what appeared to be deliberate leaks, news stories reported that the absence was a ‘silent’ protest at the recent interview given by Javed Latif in which he said that those Noonies who advocated reconciliation were on an ‘assignment’, implying that they were working at the behest of some outside forces and hence were not loyal to the party.

The words reverberated on television screens and social media but it took the absence of Shehbaz Sharif from the meetings to draw the party’s attention to the ‘insult’ Javed Latif had aimed at some of his party colleagues. Stories were at pains to point out the former chief minister and his son were present in the vicinity but didn’t attend the meetings and what the reason for this was.

By the end, Latif was issued a show-cause notice but considering his closeness to the senior branch of the Sharif family, it remains to be seen how seriously it will be taken and whether or not it results in fewer such interviews or statements. After all, this is not the first time he has spoken so critically about a few he doesn’t name but whose identity is evident to everyone.

But even if by some miracle Javed Latif manages to control his emotions from now on, the incident shows the factions within are now comfortable with the fault lines becoming public.

Instead of preparing for the next elections the PML-N is caught in its own woes.

No wonder then that when others are shifting gears to election preparations, the PML-N is caught in its internal woes which is now more about family infighting than the bayanias or narratives.

It appears that the consternation inside is extensive. The party parliamentarians are worried about the next election — spending one five-year term in opposition is a hardship that politicians in our patronage-driven system can bear but 10 years may prove to be the proverbial last straw. And they fear a second defeat because no one believes success is possible without the blessings of the establishment.

But these worries are not necessarily percolating in the right direction. Those watching the situation feel the party leadership (read Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz) are so invested in their ‘vote ko izzat do’ slogan that a victory in the next election is not a priority. They would rather continue with their bayania, regardless of the cost. Those close to them or their thinking tend to add to this perception when they insist that the party wants nothing less than the implementation of the Constitution in letter and spirit. In other words, they are not interested in improving their relations with the powers that be, which is essential for an electoral victory, apparently.

Of course, in the city known as Islamabad, many rumours and analyses prove correct as time passes but an equal number also prove wrong. Or it’s just that rapidly changing circumstances deem certain outcomes irrelevant. However, at the moment, it does seem the PML-N — either because of its family politics or its harsh stance — is not focusing on the next election.

But then, like their admirers, the leader and daughter are perhaps confident of their party’s popularity (and PTI’s misgovernance) — which will bring the party to power regardless of the establishment’s stance or they are willing to risk another term in the wilderness than accept compromised power. And after all, Maryam’s relative youth gives her the luxury of time.

However, those heeding such advice should remember time’s winged chariot.

And in politics, this chariot carries in new players, on each trip.

After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed through a military coup, his party led by Benazir Bhutto stayed out of power for 11 years (which included an election she decided to boycott). By 1988 she won power in a manner which seems to suggest the party’s appeal remained intact. All the efforts of the Zia regime had not managed to weaken the link between the PPP and the people.

Viewed another way though, Zia’s rule and the 1985 election gave Punjab a Muslim League leadership which over the decades ousted the PPP from the province. This transition or change may have been speeded up by PPP’s mistakes but the foundations were laid during the election that Benazir had boycotted. The lesson of the 1985 election has never been forgotten by the party.

In politics, such vacuums, are always filled and only time can tell if this is a stopgap arrangement or a more permanent one.

Between 1999 and 2007, the PPP and PML-N managed to sustain their political space on the electoral landscape but in the post 2008 period, their unspoken agreement to focus on their provincial strongholds — the PPP in Sindh and the PML-N in Punjab — led to a vacuum in the latter. And this was filled by the PTI.

In hindsight, the two parties recognise this. Apparently, during the initial talks around the formation of the PDM, this was cited as one reason for the PML-N to offer some sort of seat adjustment to the PPP in the next election. The idea was not just to form an alliance to thwart the establishment and the PTI but also to reclaim space for the PPP, thus reducing it for Khan’s party.

If the PML-N recognised PPP’s demise and the PTI’s rise as damaging for itself, why would it now risk allowing the same party to dominate the landscape (even if the domination is orchestrated) in the coming election?

This is a question the party should ask itself as it wrestles with the demons within. Sometimes it not enough to have time on one’s side.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2021