PML-N’s reverse drive: a 'homecoming' or 'political apostasy'?

By: Ashraf Mumtaz      Published: 12:00 AM, 20 Jan, 2020
PML-N’s reverse drive: a 'homecoming' or 'political apostasy'?

The PML-N was the establishment’s party, which its founder Nawaz Sharif tried to turn into an anti-establishment entity. But having experienced some bitter taste recently, it has started a journey backward.

On face of it, it's like someone first embracing some religion and then renouncing it. In religious terms, it is called apostasy - something hard to tolerate. In Islam, apostasy is totally unacceptable, and anyone walking out of its fold must be awarded death penalty.

But politics is not religion. Change of course in politics does have repercussions though, it’s not a sin. Politicians and political parties would adjust their course and even take U-turns, big and small, from time to time to ensure their existence, vitality, and relevance.

Predicting future is always a tough task. And making predictions about a political party, being influenced by so many actors from within and without, is even more arduous. In case of PML-N, for two key reasons, we can’t say with a fair degree of certainty how smooth or rough the journey back to the establishment bench would turn out.

One, it’s not possible to foresee if the establishment would re-embrace it with open arms and repose as much trust in the party as before.

Two, it is difficult to foretell who will lead the party – a flexible Shehbaz Sharif known for his adaptability or a radical Maryam Nawaz, whose utterances have always provoked the powers that be.

Some say that the reverse gear is a matter of great disappointment for the three-time former prime minister, who always felt flattered on being addressed as Quaid-i-Azam II. There are many who are of the considered view that MNS has played his innings and has no role to play in future.

It is an open secret that MNS was discovered, groomed and patronized by the military after the 1977 overthrow of the PPP government. The military regime wanted important people in its fold to be able to deal with the PPP which could create any situation to avenge the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Then Punjab governor Lt-Gen Ghulam Jilani Khan brought MNS closer to Gen Ziaul Haq and this led to rise of the industrialist-turned-politician.

He was twice got elected as Punjab chief minister, although his political rivals question the fairness of the means employed for the purpose.

After the 1985-partyless elections political parties were allowed to function and Nawaz Sharif was made Punjab president of the PML. Sindh’s Muhammad Khan Junejo was the central president.

MNS was very close and loyal to the military leadership as compared to his party boss – Junejo.

It was because of this reason that when Gen Zia dismissed the Junejo government on account of differences with the Sindhi leader, Mr Sharif had welcomed the step. (Then Punjab minister for industries Ghulam Haider Wyne had condemned the action as an insult to the party).

Nawaz Sharif, as chief minister, with the backing of the establishment gave tough time to then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, elected in 1988 elections. He never cooperated with her. So much so that whenever Benazir as premier visited Lahore, MNS left Lahore on one excuse or the other.

Not many people remember that even Sheikh Rashid continuously prompted MNS to keep Benazir in limits. Mian Sahib Tun Kay Rakho (keep up the pressure) was his consistent advice to the chief minister even in his public speeches.

MNS was the man behind the no-trust motion against Benazir Bhutto. But since it was Mr Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi who, as opposition leader, was supposed to become the country’s chief executive in the event of the success of the motion, MNS did not use all energies and resources to oust his arch adversary. But even a failed motion had shaken the roots of the Benazir government.

MNS had always harboured a strong desire to become a powerful prime minister. The 1990 elections provided him an opportunity to get the dream job. Since he wanted to bulldoze then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, there was a collision between the two.

In a televised address, MNS said he would neither take dictation, nor step down, nor dissolve the assembly. However, the bureaucrat-turned-politician dismissed the MNS government the very next day. Though the apex court had restored the assembly and the MNS government, the gulf between the president and the prime minister was so wide that their coexistence was not possible.

Since the system had become dysfunctional, then COAS Gen Abdul Waheed Kakar intervened as a result of which both the president and the prime minister resigned, the assembly was dissolved, paving the way for fresh elections.

Fresh elections brought Benazir Bhutto to power for a second time, with Nawaz Sharif sitting on opposition benches. MNS joined hands with new president Farooq Leghari, who for a long time worked as secretary general of the PPP. However, a situation was created that led to president Leghari sacking the Benazir government.

Another election provided MNS a chance to rule the country for a second time.

It was during this term that COAS Gen Jehangir Karamat, while delivering a speech at Lahore’s Naval War College, proposed the formation of a National Security Council to take care of the country’s security matters. It annoyed prime minister Nawaz Sharif to an extent that he forced Gen Karamat to resign. An army chief’s resignation raised the premier’s confidence level, although the institution felt undermined, humiliated.

Now MNS, exercising his powers, appointed Gen Pervez Musharraf as next COAS, ignoring the seniority list. The idea was that a “migrant from India”, Musharraf would not be able to create any problem for him.

MNS felt ecstatic on the very thought that he was in a position to send an army chief home and appoint any general of his choice as his successor.

Since MNS did not have cordial relations with any state functionary he worked with, differences also emerged between MNS and Gen Musharraf on the Kargil issue, which intensified tensions between Pakistan and India.

MNS sought president Clinton’s mediation to avert a Pak-India war. MNS alleges that he was not kept posted about the situation in Kargil, something Musharraf vehemently denies. The former general claims that he had been briefing the prime minister, although he might not have understood or remembered it.

MNS sent Gen Musharraf on a week-long visit to Sri Lanka. He was returning home and was in the plane when he removed him as COAS, pinning new badges on Gen Ziauddin Butt.

The development created serious resentment in the army. The top army leadership revolted and, in consultation with Gen Musharraf, refused to accept this decision.

MNS was tried and convicted by a Karachi-based court. After that Saudi government mediated as a result of which the Sharif family agreed to stay in exile for a period of 10 years.

The Sharifs returned to Pakistan after seven years. Musharraf had to step down during the PPP rule.

MNS again became prime minister for a third time after the 2013 elections. However, he was disqualified by a court in a corruption case. His daughter Maryam came out on the roads and spoke the language of a rebel. She was very critical of the military, something intolerable for the mighty institution.

Nawaz Sharif’s son Hussain and Hassan, staying in London since long, were declared proclaimed offenders by courts. His Samdhi – Ishaq Dar – is also an absconder.

Shehbaz Sharif’s son-in-law slipped to London along with wife and is not returning home as he too is wanted by courts.

Many properties of the Sharif family have been attached and a number of court cases against various Sharif family members are going on.

All this pushing and pressing has taught the former ruling family a bitter lesson and now they have softened their stand against the establishment. In fact they are making behind the scene efforts to mend fences, hoping that this is the only way to overcome their sufferings and regain their past glory. They are now convinced that this is the only way to return to power.

Having stayed in power for more than three decades they can’t face so many miseries.

The PML-N’s support for the bill that gave extension to Gen Bajwa for three years, after initially opposing the move, is the glaring indication of their policy shift.

Nawaz Sharif’s so-called principled stand has been compromised and now the party will again become the establishment’s baby. Hence, the former prime minister’s struggle to emerge as anti-establishment leader has been buried. Some elements in the party feel sorry for this change but they know they have to follow the line decided by the Sharifs.

The party’s journey from start to the end is quite eventful but in a bird’s eye view it could be termed a homecoming or a political apostasy, depending on which side the observer stands on – pro-establishment or anti-establishment.