Maryam and Nawaz Sharif at Abu Dhabi airport on their way back to Pakistan on July 13, 2018. Photo: Twitter
Maryam and Nawaz Sharif at Abu Dhabi airport on their way back to Pakistan on July 13, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Politics is the art of holding your cards close to the chest and playing them at the right time and place. Whoever keeps his cards undisclosed always has a better chance to win the throne and attain power.

Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, the leader of Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam Fazal (JUIF), showed his cards too early, so despite being backed by a faction within the military establishment, he was not able to engineer the ouster of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. It is not difficult to understand that in power politics there is no value in assurances or promises, as it is all about cashing at the right time.

The main opposition parties Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party both benefited from Fazal’s untimely move: The PML-N got releases on bail for Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, while the PPP was able to get relief for Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur.

By the time Fazal realized that he had been used as a pawn it was too late, and the second strike on the government and its backers by the faction of invisible forces in the form of then-chief justice Asif Saeed Khosa objecting to Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure extension also went awry as again the PML-N and PPP not only helped save the day for Bajwa but also mended some fences with the establishment.

So Fazal has played almost all his cards and remains a mere spectator to what is happening on the power chessboard, while the PPP, knowing that even if new general elections are held sooner or later it will not entirely change its position in electoral politics, is content with the current disposition as it still controls the government in Sindh province.

So this leaves the game on the power chessboard poised between the PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and Prime Minister Khan knows that a shrewd politician like Sharif can turn the tables at any time. This is the reason Khan still is not in any mood to give Sharif even a little space and in almost all of his speeches criticizes him and Maryam.

The PML-N, on the other hand, is holding its cards close to its chest and other than a few statements criticizing the PTI government for the sake of media consumption and its vote bank, it is almost silent.

In the view of many analysts and political pundits, the negotiations between the PML-N and the establishment have not reached any conclusion and it is almost impossible now for the party to secure a deal to come to power again. However, this is not the case, as the PML-N holding Maryam back and Shahbaz Sharif not taking part in active politics are hints that it is actually playing the game according to the established rules.

Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a PML-N stalwart, has just met with the leadership of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQMP), but the PML-N, being heavily reliant on Punjab’s vote bank to win power federally, only gives importance to cities like Karachi and other provinces when it sees a chance for elections in the near future. Otherwise, Abbasi seems to have taken the driver’s seat for now.

Abbasi is considered a favorite of Sharif and Maryam in PML-N circles, but despite his criticism of the establishment, he still is liked by many among the military ranks. In fact, many insiders believe that Abbasi was the first choice for the hybrid regime after the rigged 2018 elections, but his refusal to ditch Sharif and his party not only irked the powerful quarters but he was also taught a lesson for saying no to the invisible forces, as the corruption case against him was weak and even many in the PTI ranks in private discussions believed that Abbasi was not guilty.

So Abbasi at the helm of affairs of PML-N was the last thing Khan wanted, as not only does he enjoy the confidence of Sharif and his daughter but he is also acceptable to the powerful quarters. As for Sharif, the prime target is to win the legal battle for his political heir Maryam Nawaz, so his party should remain intact.

So to win the legal battle either Sharif needs to bring his party to power even at the cost of compromising with the powers that be or by at least having a guarantee that Maryam will be given a clean chit.

The establishment too will not be interested in dismantling the PML-N as it could give an edge to Imran Khan, who right now is taking dictation and remains the puppet prime minister. If Sharif’s threat of re-emergence in Punjab is diminished, Khan might not remain as submissive to the establishment as he is right now.

Anyone knowing the dynamics of Pakistani politics can tell that after the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, once a blue-eyed boy of General Ayub Khan, the establishment decided not to put all of its bets on the one horse. There have always been the two horses in the race since then.

In the 1990s Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were used against each other, then after 2007 Sharif was given space to counter the ruling PPP, and after 2013 Imran Khan was backed to keep Sharif under pressure.

So this brief study of the power game tells us that the establishment never banks on one political party or leader and it always keeps pressure on the government by allowing space to its strongest opponents. This is how the power game works in Pakistan and that is why neither Sharif and Maryam Nawaz nor the PML-N is out of the game. It is not the end of any negotiations as both Sharif and the invisible forces are experienced enough to know when to play their cards and when to hold them back.

For Khan the current oil-price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia is an opportunity to give relief to the masses. Though this oil war is an outcome of the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the global economy, and Pakistan too will face the consequences of slow economic growth all around the globe, this is nothing less than a blessing in disguise for Imran Khan and his PTI. If Khan can slash fuel prices, he will have at least have something to show to the masses.

Since Khan has his own cult and a good team in mainstream media, it will not be difficult for his spin doctors to overshadow the real reason behind the cut in fuel prices, and this can at least give him some space to maneuver. However, if instead of shifting the benefit of reduced oil prices to the masses Khan decides to appease the International Monetary Fund by not allowing a major cut in fuel prices and trying to make up for the shortfall of tax collections and revenue from the levy imposed on petroleum products, then it will become even more difficult for him to survive, as the already deteriorating economy of Pakistan will continue to feel the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Sharif, meanwhile, has played his cards well as unlike Fazal, he never was in a hurry to wrap up the current disposition. Sharif’s infrastructure mega-projects and power projects are still keeping him relevant in Punjab, and the establishment’s old trick of keeping the second horse in the race is keeping his party alive.

This power game is far from over, as contrary to the expectations of many political pundits and analysts, the behind-the-scenes dialogues have not ended, nor has the PML-N’s political strategy of mending fences with the establishment backfired. It is about to live another day, and for Imran Khan it is not only about praying for a deadlock between Sharif and the invisible forces, but he faces the daunting task of getting Pakistan out of its political and economic turmoil. Meanwhile for the establishment it is about business as usual, as a change in faces in government will only mean backing a new horse of its own.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.