Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, poses for a picture with a supporter at a rally in Lahore, on September 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Drazen Jorgic
Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, poses for a picture with a supporter at a rally in Lahore, on September 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Drazen Jorgic

Resisting rotten political and social narratives means immense sacrifices, and it is a path that very few can walk with dignity and pride by bearing the mantle of dissent and not bowing down to pressure.

Ask any dissenting politician, journalist, or human-rights activist, and he or she will tell you that there is a heavy price for resisting the powerful quarters, but it takes nothing to swim with the tide.

As the famous Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl said, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

It is one’s attitude during challenging times that counts; everything else is irrelevant. It would have been a cakewalk for the military establishment had the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by Maryam Nawaz not risen to the challenge by refusing to accept the ouster of her father, Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister and the blatant rigging of the political discourse.

In fact, along with Maryam, the likes of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Khawaja Saad Rafique, Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan, and Pervaiz Rashid played a major role in fighting the onslaught by the establishment against the PML-N.

However, after the departure of Sharif to London and Maryam becoming inactive in politics, the party has failed miserably to meet expectations and is clearly divided between the narratives of the elder Sharif, that is, “respect for the ballot,” and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who believes in working with the establishment to come to power.

The PML-N, being the largest opposition party in the country has failed to highlight the plight of the masses suffering from the incompetence and misgovernance of the current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) regime. In fact, it has also remained silent on human-rights issues, civil liberties, and freedom of the press.

The party’s silence on the recent killings of Sweden-based Pakistani journalist Sajid Hussain and Pashtun rights activist Arif Wazir is evidence that opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif is not interested in anything other than coming to power by getting in the good books of the powers that be.

In fact, the chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is playing the role of the main opposition leader by not only being vocal on human-rights issues and muzzling of the press but by challenging the PTI government for its wrong policies during the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, surprisingly Shahbaz is not being criticized for remaining silent on the core issues. Instead, it is Maryam Nawaz who is being criticized by large section of the press and the general public. Perhaps the press, which is largely tilt toward the PTI government, understands its backers want to see Maryam back to prison, while the masses have overly high expectations of her as in the past she defied the odds and courageously led the PML-N narrative and challenged the powers that be.

Meanwhile, a propaganda campaign has been run against the PML-N that it is ready to help the establishment finish off the 18th Amendment of the constitution that guarantees autonomy to the provinces. However, party stalwart and ex-finance minister Ishaq Dar has rejected such allegations, saying that reports of the PML-N trying to reach a deal with the government over the 18th Amendment in exchange for abolishing the sentences of Sharif and Maryam are completely false and baseless.

So it is not rocket science to see that the insecure PTI government is still afraid of the popularity of Sharif’s and Maryam’s narrative in the province of Punjab. This means that despite around-the-clock propaganda against the PML-N, Shahbaz’ cautious approach of not locking horns with the establishment will not bear any fruit, as both Nawaz and his daughter are against any compromise at this juncture.

After all, the PML-N has already faced the consequences, as most of its stalwarts were jailed for a time, and both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam are out of the electoral politics. So a shrewd politician like Nawaz can engage the establishment in dialogue, but he will not lend any support to the current government and its backers even if the heavens fall.

For many, Sharif has made a compromise and Maryam is silent because of that compromise, but the fact is that she is being confined to her home and she is silent because she knows that the government can arrest her at any time if she becomes vocal again, and that will force her father to return to Pakistan without getting treatment for his heart disease.

However, in her absence, the PML-N is quite disconnected from the reality of politics on the ground. There is no way that remaining silent on key issues and being confined to making statements on mainstream and digital media can strengthen its vote bank.

Maryam used to hold regular press conferences and keep the masses mobilized through public gatherings, which not only increased the popularity of her party in Punjab but almost defeated the narrative of Imran Khan’s PTI and its backers. This is the reason that not only was the entire political discourse rigged but the invisible forces had to come forward to deny the PML-N victory in the 2018 election.

The rest is history, and some time in the future many journalists who do not have the courage to speak the truth at the right time will publish books on how a thrice-elected prime minister was humiliated for not taking dictation from the establishment, and how the battle of narratives was valiantly fought by a woman against both visible and invisible opponents.

In a country where the majority cannot even imagine taking on the invisible forces, and where compromise on integrity and principles is considered the trait of a successful politician or journalist, it is very rare that someone rises to the occasion and refuses to accept the rules and terms set by the undemocratic forces, as Maryam did.

For many, Nawaz Sharif is remembered for his development projects and his influence on foreign policy, but in reality, his real political capital among the masses is Maryam. It is she who made a traditional status quo political party into a vibrant and anti-establishment force willing to stand against the odds.

So criticizing her for her current silence may give pleasure to that segment of the press that always swims with the tide, or to the hardliners who think that her silence is a sign of retreat, but in reality, she is gearing up for the next round of the battle on the power chessboard.

However, the PML-N can never be bailed out for maintaining silence on important social and political issues and for not understanding the benefits of the narrative of Sharif and Maryam. As long as Maryam is there and her close aides are with her, the hope remains that the PML-N will never compromise on its stance of democratic supremacy just to come to power again.

She may have cried in court when she was not allowed to meet with her father, but this cannot be taken as a sign of retreat or compromise. To quote Victor Frankl again, “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”

In this case, it was a woman who had, and still has, the courage to suffer and prevail again.

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.