Imran Khan has been accused of bowing to religious extremists in Pakistan. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Imran Khan could well return to power in Pakistan, and the US must be prepared to deal with him. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The Pakistan National Assembly on Monday passed the Finance Bill for fiscal year 2020-21. The budget, which lacks sufficient funds for the health and education sectors despite the Covid-19 pandemic, was always expected to be passed as the opposition had decided much earlier not to intervene and create trouble for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

The PTI government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan was already facing stern criticism for raising the prices of petroleum products at a time when the majority of the population is not able to meet its daily needs because of the global recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The higher fuel prices mean almost every other commodity will also be more expensive, and with no serious initiative by the PTI government to rectify the economy, poverty is expected to grow at an alarming rate.

If this were not enough, the travel restrictions imposed by the European Union on Pakistanis will add more problems for the economy, as not only individual travelers but also consignments from Pakistan could face a ban from developed nations.

In these tough times when much of the population is unhappy with the performance of the PTI regime and openly criticizes its backers for imposing an incompetent government on the country, many political analysts and pundits are raising questions on why former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is silent and why his daughter Maryam Nawaz, who at one time wrote a new chapter of defiance in the political history of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the province of Punjab, is inactive.

Many accuse Sharif and Maryam of keeping quiet as a result of a deal, while others believe the pair have chosen to remain out of politics so they can avoid the wrath of the military establishment.

While criticizing the politics of Sharif, many pundits ignore the fact that he is the most senior politician in the country and the only one who ousted a military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, who once staged a coup against him. Sharif did it not by heroics but by patiently waiting for the right time and maneuvering the political chessboard in his favor.

Sharif knows that in these times of global recession and in the midst of a pandemic it would be a fatal mistake for him and his party to oust Imran Khan through an in-house change, as no political party right now can repair the damage that is being done to the country by the misgovernance of PTI and the establishment.

For many in Pakistan, politics is all about making populist statements and giving speeches, whereas actual power politics works entirely opposite of this perception. Power politics is the game of holding one’s nerve and giving ample time to one’s visible and invisible opponents so their weaknesses can be exposed in front of the masses.

That is what Sharif is doing, and with every passing day, he is making sure that both Khan and his backers are further discredited. It would take nothing for Maryam or for that matter Sharif himself to issue typical statements criticizing the PTI government, but both the father and daughter know their opponent is not Imran Khan, as he is merely a pawn who has no political capital.

Sharif challenged the hegemony of the establishment and Maryam went one step further by creating a powerful anti-establishment narrative in Punjab. This narrative is still popular, and despite their silence the PML-N vote bank and the segment of the population who dislike the PTI government and the involvement of the establishment in political matters are criticizing them for their misgovernance and their inability to handle the pandemic.

And this is not to forget the Kashmir fiasco and the country’s increasing foreign and internal debts. The other thing is that even if Sharif or Maryam speak the media do not have the spine to show their press conferences live or even to air their recorded interviews. So this spineless section of the press has no right to criticize the silence of Sharif and his daughter.

From Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto giving their lives to Nawaz Sharif being humiliated and arrested twice by the military establishment for not taking dictation, and Maryam sent to prison for devising a narrative against the establishment, there always have been political parties and leaders who have made sacrifices for the sake of democracy.

You will not find many journalists, judges or bureaucrats who dared to say no to the invisible forces and stood by their constitutional or professional oaths. After all, in a country where even judges are pressured to convict the opponents of the invisible forces on fake charges and where most of the media houses and journalists act as mouthpieces for the ruling party or the establishment, it requires a lot of patience and effort from the political leaders to outsmart the establishment and its allies.

So Sharif is doing the smart thing by not playing an active role as far as populist politics is concerned while behind the scenes, he is making moves on the power chessboard.

There are no coincidences in politics and everything happens for a reason. Imran Khan’s allies are abandoning him and members of his party are showing frustration on his governance in private conversations.

So at this juncture when everything is going against the government and its backers, only a man without political acumen would start making statements against the regime and provide them the opportunity to distract the attention of the masses from their failures.

Time has proved that both Sharif and Maryam were right when they said long ago that the game of discrediting the ballot and bringing puppets to power would not work any more and the country would bear the consequences. Right now from the failures on the foreign-policy front to the deteriorating economy and from the political turmoil to the misgovernance and the curbs on freedom of speech, every single prediction of Sharif has come true.

Meanwhile Maryam, who once said that the marriage of convenience between the establishment and Imran Khan would not last long, is perhaps having the last laugh as Khan has started saying that there is no choice other than him as a prime minister, and his foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, on Monday in the National Assembly also said that Khan would not resign.

When someone starts saying that he is irreplaceable and will not resign, it means he is feeling the heat and knows that he is not secure and can be ousted at any moment. Khan is running out of time, and a few of his backers are walking on a very thin tightrope. All Sharif has to do is to wait patiently until the establishment backs off and agrees to his demand for free and fair elections soon after the pandemic is over.

Sharif and Maryam both have nothing to lose, as they have already fought valiantly when it was needed; it is Imran Khan and the establishment who are running out of time.

It is a gloomy picture as far as the country’s fate is concerned but before the dawn, there always comes the darkest period. Perhaps Sharif with his decades of political experience knows this and is waiting for that dawn for which he and Maryam have fought, and weakened the grip of the establishment.

Sharif’s and Maryam’s silence is not a sign of compromise or defeat: It is them holding their nerve on the invisible power chessboard. It is not their silence, but the cowardice of some of us journalists, judges like Arshad Malik and Saqib Nisar, the turncoat politicians and the opportunistic bureaucrats who have been sitting silent or have been aligning with the undemocratic forces who have undermined the interests of their country and of democracy.

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.