Fazal-ur-Rehman, head of the Pakistan Democratic Movement. Photo: Wikipedia

As the political temperature rises in Pakistan, the players on the power chessboard are feeling the heat. Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to cling to power, while the military establishment is busy finding new pawns to keep the current political discourse intact.

Khan’s government, which was formed with a very thin majority in parliament, is not only faced with the tasks of fixing the economy and ending Pakistan’s global isolation on the Kashmir issue but is also facing the agitations of almost every segment of society, from doctors to teachers and from traders to businessmen, all in protest against the unsuccessful policies of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.

If that is not enough, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) chief Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman is set to march on Islamabad and mount a demonstration on the 31st of this month. The Pakistan Peoples Party may not be fully supporting Fazal’s action, but it has announced that the PPP government in Sindh province will facilitate his long march. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), though divided on whether to join in the march, may soon do so, as Nawaz Sharif has conveyed to Fazal that his party will join in.

So the stage is set for an intense political battle. Fazal is confident and keeping his cards close to his chest, while the rift within the PML-N is visible now and there is reportedly difference of opinion within the security establishment over backing the PTI regime. The regime is solely dependent on the establishment to rescue it from Fazal’s movement backed by Sharif. How the establishment, which is already under immense pressure because of the poor governance of PTI and the Kashmir fiasco and is divided on further backing the current political discourse, will be able to thwart this threat and save the government remains to be seen.

However, the visible cracks within the ranks of the PML-N indicate that its current head Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, is trying his best to persuade Nawaz not to lock horns with the establishment and to present PML-N as another puppet party like PTI that is ready to take dictation from the establishment.

A source within the PML-N who is very close to both Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam and who played a pivotal role in opposing the policies of Shahbaz Sharif and his allies, and who wished not to be named, told this correspondent that Shahbaz is in no mood for taking on the establishment and it is the pressure of the PML-N vote bank that is forcing him to accept the orders of his older brother, but is dragging his feet. My source may be right, as Shahbaz has wasted precious time by trying to remain in the good books of the establishment.

Shahbaz without a doubt is a very capable administrator but time has proved that he lacks the ability to lead the aggressive narrative of PML-N against the establishment. In the interest of the well-being of both Shahbaz and the party, Nawaz should appoint a new president of PML-N and ask Shahbaz to relax a bit. According to my source, Maryam Nawaz is ready to take over control of PML-N whenever she is released from jail.

Shahbaz and his close aides have already wasted time by not mobilizing the workers of PML-N for participation in the long march on Islamabad. At a time when the PTI government is trapped by its own failures and the establishment is on the back foot after the Kashmir fiasco, PML-N needs an aggressive leader like Maryam to lead the charge. The establishment’s narrative of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari both being corrupt and responsible for the country’s financial woes has been proved wrong once again, as despite PTI being in power for a year, the World Economic Forum reports that Pakistan fares poorer than last year on indicators of freedom and corruption.

Now, this rotten narrative can only attract the segment of masses who are either part of the blind PTI fan club or are unaware that it is the military establishment that eats up the major chunk of the government budget and has ruled directly and indirectly for the past 60 years. So it was natural for Punjab, a pro-establishment province, to embrace the narratives of Sharif and Maryam, as 60 years are more than enough to make people with common sense realize that it is not the politicians who have been responsible for the destruction of the social and political fabric of the country, nor for eating up a major chunk of the fiscal budget.

Fazal has read this situation well and he knows that even the pro-establishment province of Punjab is not ready to buy establishment propaganda any more. The problem with Shahbaz and his likeminded faction remains that they are still doing the pro-status-quo politics of a bygone age. They are ignoring the fact that Sharif’s civilian-supremacy narrative got them around 13 million votes in last year’s general election and for the first time in Punjab, a party that had been ousted from the power by the invisible forces through political engineering, instead of being wiped out or being dismantled, rose to a new level of popularity thanks to Maryam’s brave and aggressive campaign of taking on the establishment.

Shahbaz may fearing for the survival and life of his brother but he needs to understand that anti-status-quo politics is a one-way street. Nawaz Sharif cannot bow down now, as doing so would end his political career. Instead, his political heir Maryam is set to take the battle to a new stage.

If a seasoned politician like Fazal, who never sails against the tide, has adopted the anti-establishment brand of politics, then the pro-status-quo group within the PML-N needs to understand that only Maryam’s narrative can keep them alive in the battle against the mighty establishment. Political and ideological battles fought against stronger opponents demand aggressive and timely moves on the power chessboard.

Sharif and Maryam both have so far fought valiantly, and if PML-N can hold on for a little longer there is a chance that it will prevail against the invisible forces and eventually end the political hegemony of the establishment. This new round of the political battle starting with Fazal’s long march will be intense, and if PTI and the establishment somehow survive, they likely will not only prevail but later will exploit the visible cracks within the PML-N. For Sharif, Fazal’s long march will be a test case to re-check the affiliation of the vibrant and anti-establishment vote bank with the anti-establishment narrative and an opportunity to turn the tables in favor of the democratic supremacy.

Interesting political battles lie ahead in a country where the economy is in shambles and the common masses are left on their own to survive amid inflation and price hikes. In fact, the common man is paying the cost of this misadventure of the invisible forces of bringing Khan into power through political engineering.

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