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Is Nawaz Sharif unstoppable?

In what could be termed as a turning point before the general elections, on Monday the PML-N defeated the PTI’s candidate in NA-154, Lodhran in Punjab, with a big margin of 22,350 votes. The result indicates a swing of almost 61,136 votes as compared to the last by-election that the PTI’s Secretary General Jehangir Tareen had won with a much greater margin of 38,786 votes. Is deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s mantra of ‘why have I been ousted?’ multiplying his political fortunes?

It looks like that may indeed be happening. But Nawaz is still not out of the dock of person-specific accountability. The PML-N’s successive victories in the last three by-elections have encouraged Nawaz Sharif to taunt those who had from within opposed his political onslaught against unrepresentative institutions for his ouster, and had advised him to go home quietly instead of taking the mass mobilisation course on GT Road. Nawaz Sharif’s public meetings show an unprecedented turnout of people, more than he had ever attracted.

We are now witnessing a sympathy wave for the ousted prime minister across all regions of Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This is not a new phenomenon. In the past too we saw that when elected prime ministers were booted out by the autocratic forces, the masses had turned out in favour of their ousted elected leaders, even if the opposition forces were quite formidable. We saw this when prime ministers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and for the second time Nawaz Sharif were ousted by what were seen as unfair means.

Their inquisitional trials failed to convince the people and all those judgments against the successive prime ministers were rejected in the court of public opinion. However, compared to both the Bhuttos, Nawaz Sharif proved to be a greater survivor, and made it for the third time to the Prime Minister’s Office. His is a perpetual case of success-ouster-revival. What makes him so vulnerable and yet undefeatable is an interesting phenomenon. Like Z A Bhutto, he was groomed by the military establishment to become a popular leader in his own right. Again, like Bhutto and Benazir, he was booted out by the establishment twice. But, unlike the Bhuttos, he survived and made his third comeback – only to be ousted again, which has been seen by some as a quasi-judicial coup.

History is not made by court judgments but, in the last analysis, by the people – who hate their mandates being humiliated. And, Nawaz Sharif is simply playing on this popular instinct and has almost won politically, even though his future prospects remain in the hands of a proactive judiciary.

What is behind the confidence of Maryam Nawaz, the heir apparent if not disqualified, when she says: “stop if you can”? Indeed, it’s the Sharifs’ broader mass-base in the most dominant province of the country. Unlike the Bhuttos, this challenger to the establishment is from the bastion of Punjab. Nawaz Sharif’s support base among the Punjabi bourgeoisie, forces of the bazaar and the rural rich is intact, even though the religious sections have now been prompted to play the role of spoiler against him. To his good luck, he has a flip-flop demagogue as his main challenger. As opposed to Nawaz Sharif’s ideologically conservative and economically neo-liberal opposition to Benazir Bhutto’s enlightened egalitarianism, Imran Khan’s extreme right-wing moralist onslaught against Sharif seems to have backfired.

The PTI’s successive defeats in three by-elections in Punjab’s three distinct regions are quite devastating for Imran’s Khan’s ambitious political project. In the course of his brinkmanship, Imran Khan has not only lost his political credentials by hobnobbing with a section of the establishment for his street putsches, but also his ideological premises. His main thrust was against the repeatedly tested parties of the status quo, pegging his opposition on the issue of corruption as the mother of all maladies in Pakistan. But in the course of a rat race for electable candidates, he embraced all kinds of self-seekers and, consequently, compromised the single premises of his politics – his solitary war against the corrupt. His double-speak and self-contradictory position on moralist parameters deprived him of the moral distinction that he has been flaunting so much in the face of his adversaries.

In fact, Imran Khan exhausted his major political plank of ‘Go Nawaz Go’ with Nawaz Sharif’s ouster – who used it to his advantage. Instead of losing out to Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif managed to exploit his ouster as a wronged fallen guy by using victimhood and the sympathy wave among his constituencies. As Sharif moves much ahead of Imran Khan in public support in Punjab with his ‘Why was I ousted?’ outcry, the latter finds himself without a counter-narrative. Imran is being seen as a villain rather than a hero. The two major adversaries are experiencing a typical reversal of roles. Ironically, the other challenger to Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, is running after caretakers of shrines, nawabs and feudal landlords to slice away some feudal constituencies in Punjab as BB’s political heir, Bilawal, struggles to plug in some remnants of Bhutto’s populism.

History has come full circle. In place of the pro- and anti-Bhutto divide of the 70s and 80s, we now have a pro- and anti-Sharif divide. Even if Nawaz Sharif is convicted, he is going to garner still greater public sympathy that will increasingly keep the judiciary under popular pressure. However, a more tedious challenge awaits Nawaz Sharif. If both he and his daughter are convicted, the mantle of leadership will fall into the lap of Shehbaz Sharif, the current chief minister of Punjab. If that happens, Nawaz’s defiance will act as a sacrificial goat for the elevation of his younger brother, who wanted him to go home quietly to win back the support of the powers that be.

Shahbaz Sharif has kept a distance from his brother’s defiant course, and is said to have kept backdoor channels open for talks and appeasement with the establishment. That is why Nawaz is now appealing for an overwhelming mandate for his possible return through a parliamentary reversal of his fate as a disqualified aspirant. His best bet is his daughter who has steadfastly stood by him and has emerged as his real successor. Given the uncertainty of his fate, Nawaz Sharif must come forward with a consistent democratic agenda to strengthen the supremacy of representative institutions elected by the people.

This is a question of the sovereignty of the people, not a person. He may or may not become the prime minister for the fourth time; what is more important is to strengthen the supremacy of parliament and respect for the people’s mandates.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: imtiaz.safma@gmail.com

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

Imtiaz Alam, "Is Nawaz Sharif unstoppable?," The News. 2018-02-15.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political project , Political fortunes , Political plank , Judiciary , Leadership , Corruption , Imran Khan , Nawaz Sharif , Lodhran , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , PTI , PMLN