Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, addresses a gathering during an anti-Imran Khan protest rally in Quetta on July 25, 2019. Photo: AFP / Banaras Khan

The economic turmoil in Pakistan is getting worse every day, and the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government seems clueless even after more than a year and a half in the power corridors. The country that saw a period of relative peace and growth in the era of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is now presenting an entirely gloomy economic picture for the days ahead.

The entire machinery of government is busy creating a false perception among the masses that everything is all right, and that not only is the PTI doing wonders in the field of governance, the criticism it receives from dissenting media groups and journalists is due to its campaign against the corrupt opposition and corrupt media houses. But the problem remains that manufactured consent cannot live long when the ruling party is inept and knows nothing about governance.

Prime Minister Imran Khan perhaps knows that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) after mending fences with the military establishment is gradually returning to its traditional pro-establishment and constituency-based politics. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which surrendered long before the general elections of 2018, is not a threat to the PTI government. In fact, the PML-N under the leadership of Shahbaz Sharif cannot pose a grave challenge to Khan, as if Shahbaz comes to power through an in-house change or a rigged political discourse like Khan did, he too won’t be able to survive for long, as coming to power at the behest of local and international establishment forces would mean the continuation of the same policies of PTI, and that means outsourcing the economy to the International Monetary Fund and giving the control of foreign policy to Washington and Riyadh.

However, there is still one person Imran Khan is afraid of, and that is Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif. Though Maryam is no longer active in politics as her father has finally agreed to the political views of his younger brother Shahbaz and is mending fences with the invisible forces to get his party back in power, her political narrative has not changed. She is silent because her father has asked her to be silent, but anyone with a little political acumen can tell that she is waiting for the right time and right opportunity to strike back.

The problem for the establishment remains that she is not content with just seeing Khan ousted from power, as anyone who knows her a little can tell that she wants to change the rules of the political game. So not only Khan but even the invisible forces know that if anyone in the future can pose a threat to the current rules of the power game, that is going to be Maryam. This is the reason she is not allowed to travel to London even for a few days to see her father, who is supposed to be admitted to hospital for heart surgery next week.

In fact, Khan and his cabinet members despite Maryam’s silence never miss a chance to criticize her and level charges of corruption against her. Special assistant to the prime minster Shahzad Akbar recently leveled another allegation that Maryam accepted a bribe of millions of rupees from a contractor in the Islamabad International Airport project. Since PTI has a habit of accusing its opponents of imaginary corruption, this new allegation is not surprising, but the timing is interesting. Maryam wants to go to London to see her father and her petition in the Lahore High Court is pending. Khan and his ministers know that it is not they but the establishment that has the power to allow or disallow her to go to London. So the only thing Khan can do is to level another corruption charge against Maryam to malign her in front of his cult vote bank.

In a country with shrinking space for dissenting voices and where anti-status-quo political leaders are either sent to the gallows or face exile, the hope remains that Maryam, despite the weakness of her party and despite her not speaking out at times, will learn from this phase and unlike the PML-N leadership will not change her ideology.

Those who know her can easily predict that among the current political elite only she has the capacity and ability to take a firm stance and show nerve against her visible and invisible opponents. She has proved her mettle by showing unprecedented defiance and firebrand anti-establishment politics, but she still needs to get out of the shadows of her party’s rotten ideology of remaining in the power corridors at the cost of sacrificing its political narratives.

She has faced a lot of criticism from a large segment of the press for staying silent and for her party taking a U-turn from the narrative of “respect the vote,” but unlike Imran Khan or PTI, PML-N members and followers have not started accusing journalists of taking bribes or bashing their character.  So for now, she may be at the receiving end, but Khan has at last for the first time rightly calculated the political threat she represents, and the new allegation of taking kickbacks is just the start, as Khan and his ministers can easily divert the attention of their cult vote bank from PTI misgovernance to fabricated tales and corruption allegations.

However, what Khan has failed to understand is that the storm is not over, and he cannot weather it by accusing previous governments of all the country’s current woes or by targeting Maryam and her father. His only chance of survival remains in finding a solution to the prevailing economic crisis, and without any vision of how to run a national economy, this seems an uphill task.

As for Maryam, it is good that Khan is keeping her relevant despite her silence, as the more he and his ministers bring her into the public eye, even with the intention of maligning her, the more she will remain relevant to her vote bank. This is how politics works, where even accusations keep politicians alive and give them space, but Khan seems quite inept in even understanding this simple point.

So in a possible political battle in the near future, despite not being at the helm of party affairs, Maryam will be pitted against Imran Khan, as even if Shahbaz somehow reaches a deal with the invisible forces, neither he nor his son Hamza Shahbaz have the ability to attract the large and enthusiastic gatherings that Maryam did in the past for the PML-N when the odds were against the party.

Even though she is being kept silent and confined to her residence in the town of Raiwind in suburban Lahore, Khan sitting in Islamabad knows that the most of the PML-N vote bank belongs to Maryam, and it is waiting for her call. If she makes that call, she will be able to draw even larger rallies than her father did in Punjab, as was witnessed last year before she was sent behind bars.

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