When Prime Minister Imran Khan and the country’s military leadership came out with their statements about “unprecedented voluntary cuts” on the military budget, Maryam Nawaz responded with a tweet of her own.
“Mian Nawaz Sharif as prime minister catered to all the needs of the armed forces, which included salary increases plus purchases for new equipment, development and training which is crucial for their preparedness. This is the difference between competence and incompetence that you (Imran Khan) personify.”
These words by Maryam Nawaz drew much criticism from various quarters on social media, the crux of which can be summed up by a satirical article that appeared in a daily the following day. Its headline read: “Nawaz Sharif was a much more competent stooge, Maryam tells ‘incompetent’ Imran.”
With Nawaz Sharif – and now her cousin Hamza Shehbaz – in jail and the future of the party at stake, it is only to be expected that Maryam will attempt to defend her father’s legacy and attack Imran Khan in the name of opposition.
But Maryam’s tweet was a bitter reminder of some of the more unsavoury aspects of the PML-N administration led by her father. For it is quite true that the supremacy of the security establishment was overall strengthened during Nawaz Sharif’s latest tenure – to the detriment of our democratic freedoms. And this was a process in which the government itself participated actively or watched helplessly from the sidelines.
Today, the PML-N is called upon to play an effective role in opposition to a government that clearly enjoys the blessings of the establishment. In explaining the challenges before the party, much is made of its “party DNA.” It is argued that perhaps an organisation created by the security establishment can only ever imagine a politics of appeasement and perform the role of an oppositional force by playing loyal favourites.
And yet, only a few weeks earlier, when Maryam sat next to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at a press conference, there was hope for a more vigorous form of opposition politics. She noted: “Young people know what they want and we are listening to their voices. We will to work to further broaden the Charter of Democracy.”
This was the first coherent articulation of the kind of response the current situation demands. It was surprising that it was Maryam (and not Bilawal) who led the charge in harking back to the Charter of Democracy – which was hammered out by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif back in their days of opposition to the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf.
But then, Maryam’s political career has been one of surprises. The pundits were just as taken aback when Maryam successfully mobilised the party’s significant base of public support for the assertion of civilian supremacy in the fight for democracy.
It must be remembered that unlike young Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the PPP, Maryam was not always seen as the heir to the PML-N. She is much older than Bilawal, and did not have the privilege of being taught by scholars at Oxford University. Her grooming as a leader of the PML-N happened over the last six years – and her political training now includes a jail term.
Yet despite her modest education and after living a mostly sequestered life, Maryam Nawaz has now led a popular campaign for civilian supremacy which continues to resonate in the PML-N’s core constituencies. Why did her narrative gain so much support?
I would argue that it was because she tapped into the contradiction at the heart of this entire civil-military saga: the resentment brewing across the country against subversion of democracy through constant undermining of the will of the people.
Here, it is also important to recall what is perceived to be the main reason behind Nawaz Sharif’s current predicament: his insistence on a treason trial for General (r) Pervez Musharraf.
It would be unfair to entirely dismiss the PML-N’s need to negotiate and bargain with the security establishment, not just for political expediency but also as a necessity. Every party adopts a certain posture in its relationship with the ruling order. The PML-N has, for the most part, remained pliant – in the hopes that it would be able to consolidate its voters through governance and service delivery. But as historian Ali Usman Qasmi wrote in these pages a few months ago, service delivery might have helped the PML-N retain a sizeable number of its votes in the Punjab, but it was not enough to win the bulk of the new middle class. This is because, Qasmi wrote, no matter what he does, Shehbaz Sharif (and by extension Nawaz Sharif) is seen as a symbol of the status quo: a part of Pakistan’s “traditional” and “dynastic” politics responsible for ruining the country. The same tag, he notes, haunts Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Sindh.
Maryam may never be able to undo the past, nor entirely fight off the ghost that haunts her father’s politics. But for some reason, whether by luck or by design, she finds herself at the helm of the largest political party in the Punjab. Her position in this moment is unprecedented. After all, how many female leaders have headed political parties in the Punjab in recent history? With this unique vantage point, and in a moment when women in Pakistan are asserting their rights through bold Aurat Marches in urban centres, Maryam has an opportunity for a new kind of politics. She need not simply reproduce the politics of the old.
Now that she has decided to carry the flag for civilian supremacy, it is important for Maryam and her advisers to remember that a three-time prime minister languishing in prison is only one symptom of the crisis.
Maryam does not need to look too far from her own narrative to build her political resume and turn to all of the other ways in which civilian supremacy is being undermined, not just in the instance of Maryam’s father. As a small example, MNAs Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, who broke bread with Maryam at the iftar hosted by Bilawal, are also in prison. There are extraordinary controls on the media and even Supreme Court judges, who are asking difficult questions, are under siege. Meanwhile, citizens continue to get poorer as inflation rises, the rupee loses its value and the people’s purchasing power declines. It is in these issues that Maryam can find an opening for the new kind of politics the PML-N desperately needs.
Yet one finds Maryam and her party rather muted in their response to all these issues. There are only two explanations offered for this paralysis; that Mian Sahib is in jail, and that such politics of resistance is not in the “party DNA.” All of this unfortunately comes at the cost of losing the support that may have been mobilised over the last two years.
Maryam and her advisors would also do well to take lessons from the fate of the Congress Party in the recent elections in India – that is, if they do not relate more to the BJP, of course. We have seen that the Congress failed to unite the opposition against BJP’s onslaught, despite being in a leading position to so. The result was a landslide defeat for Congress, with its leader Rahul Gandhi losing even his own parliamentary seat.
Maryam and her advisors now have a party organization that has been tested in a general election. It remained a large electoral force in the country without the support of the security establishment. In fact, despite the direct hostility of unelected institutions of state, it retains significant strength and remains the largest party in the Punjab. In Sindh it appears that Bilawal, flanked by the stalwarts of his party, is also looking to strengthen his alliances against the ruling party.
There are four more years of this regime before the public goes to vote again. It is this time that will decide whether Maryam intends to win over the public or win back her father’s patrons.
The writer is TFT News Editor and can be reached on Twitter @aimamk