Pakistan opposition leaders Mulana Fazal-ur-Rehman (right), Shahbaz Sharif (second left) and Maryam Nawaz (left) listen to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (second right) during a press conference at the end of an All Parties Conference in Islamabad on September 20, 2020. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

On Sunday, Pakistani opposition parties after hours of deliberation launched a joint platform against the government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its backers. The forum, named the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan and requested an investigation of the allegations that retired Lieutenant-General Asim Saleem Bajwa used his position in the army to enrich himself.

The PDM also demanded fresh elections and, in a press conference, said some opposition parties were considering resigning from the national and provincial assemblies. The PDM also announced a planned long march against the PTI government in January.

Since the opposition parties have their own manifestos and political interests, it is not difficult to understand that other than keeping themselves relevant in the power game, this multiparty conference was not effective, as no party other than Jamiat Ulema-e-Fazal (JUIF) talked about the immediate need to resign from the assemblies and to start agitation in the streets.

However, ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif breaking his two-year-old silence in this conference was the highlight of the day. In a powerful speech, he directly accused the military establishment of staging an undeclared coup and bringing Imran Khan into power through a rigged general election.

In fact, Sharif’s speech can be termed one of the best ever delivered by an ex-prime minister that talked about the real problems of the country. From issuing a charge sheet against the current establishment led by General Qamar Javed Bajwa to mentioning the impunity for dictators like General Pervez Musharraf, Sharif boldly expressed his narrative.

Sharif also accused General Asim Saleem Bajwa of toppling the PML-N government in Balochistan in 2016 to engineer the Senate elections. From the Dawn Leaks to the former director general of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Asif Ghafoor Bajwa, rejecting an elected prime minister’s order through a tweet, Sharif spoke bravely, and every single word showed his defiance and the will to fight the battle against the establishment until the last moment.

For many, it was only a speech, but those who know the dynamics of power politics in Pakistan can tell easily that Sharif has burned his boats and he has taken the decisive path of defiance against the establishment.

This is a path that can send any political leader no matter how popular he or she is to the gallows, but still, Sharif has chosen to walk on this path, and he has ended every single perception that he had been keeping quiet because of a deal with the establishment. Never in recent history has any popular Pakistani leader directly accused the establishment of not only engineering the political discourse but also overseeing a failed foreign policy.

Sharif’s statement that the establishment is a state above the state will definitely intensify this battle, as the military elite is already feeling the heat of the unsuccessful experience of bringing Khan into power and is feeling insecure.

Sharif, being the most senior politician in the country, hit the establishment at the right time and at the right place. However, the question arises whether his own party, the PML-N, and the other parties including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will be able to carry the burden of this war on their shoulders.

To be honest, it does not seem possible. The PPP is enjoying government in Sindh province and it will never resign from assemblies or go to an extent where as a consequence it has to lose its government in Sindh. Likewise, Sharif’s own party has many stalwarts who still want to mend fences with the establishment to come to power again through the rigged and engineered political discourse and are not ready to face the wrath of the military elite.

Since Sharif has again declared in this speech that he is not fighting Imran Khan but is trying to oust the establishment from politics, it is very evident that more than Khan, it is Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa and his aides who will be feeling the pressure and who will be criticized, directly and indirectly, for the failures of the government’s economic and foreign policies.

Those who know the style of Sharif’s politics can easily understand that he has the nerve to take on any visible or invisible dictator without fearing the consequences. Another thing that is working in Sharif’s favor is the support of pro-democratic vote banks in the other provinces, and not just his political fortress of Punjab.

As far as the province of Punjab is concerned, everyone here is talking about his aggressive speech. Perhaps this is the difference between an elected leader and a non-elected leader.

Sharif spoke after a hiatus of two years, but he was right on the money. He said what the common masses could not because of their fear of the establishment, so he not only revived his political party but also gave a strong reply to the powerful quarters who he says have manipulated the judicial proceedings against him and deliberately declared him an absconder.

Perhaps declaring Sharif an absconder was the revenge of the establishment, as it was Sharif who for the first time in the history of the country brought a military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, to court for abrogating the constitution, and Musharraf was declared an absconder after the establishment helped him flee the country.

In any case, Sharif again has played his part as the most senior political leader of the country, and his defiance is a clear indication that he, along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz, is not willing to negotiate with the establishment unless it takes the back seat and stop interfering in politics.

It is now up to the lifeless opposition of his own party led by his own brother Shahbaz Sharif and the PPP led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who are not ready to put their stakes in the decisive battle. If Sharif can hand over the leadership of his party to Maryam Nawaz or the likes of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the PML-N can become a vibrant opposition party. Likewise, Bilawal needs to induct young blood to his party who genuinely can challenge the establishment by going for a mass agitation movement.

We recently witnessed in Belarus that the power of people can weaken the strongest of regimes: The Belarusian protests have reminded everyone about the importance of street power.

Whether the Pakistani opposition parties will follow the path Sharif has laid out remains to be seen, but Sharif for sure with his speech and his narrative has severely challenged the hegemony of the establishment. Even if he is not able to change the status quo, his name will be written in history as the first mainstream political leader from Punjab who challenged the hegemony of the establishment and almost pushed it to the wall.

Sharif’s speech clearly indicates that he is not looking only for the removal of Khan, but in fact wants to oust the military establishment led by General Bajwa from the political chessboard. This battle between Sharif and the establishment is far from over.

For now, Sharif has won another round of the battle and the establishment has to come up with more arrests and restrictions on freedom of speech to counter Sharif’s narrative that is becoming stronger and more popular with the passage of time.

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.