Supporters of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz shout slogans during a demonstration after the Lahore High Court rejected opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif's bail plea in a money-laundering case, in Karachi on September 28, 2020. Shahbaz is the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

This week’s politics in Pakistan can easily be termed as the revival and rise of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his party the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). A defiant Sharif, who on Sunday after breaking his silence delivered an aggressive speech, did so again in another speech on Thursday.

This time he came out even harder than in his first speech, and clearly stated that he only loves those soldiers who obey their oath and do not intervene in politics. Sharif in his live speech to his party’s central executive committee read out the oath of the armed forces of Pakistan, which bars them from indulging in any political activity.

Even in his brief media talk in London on September 28, Sharif did not hesitate to criticize the role of the military establishment in rigging the political discourse of the country.

Such was the pressure of his re-emergence on the political horizon that, first, the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its backers got his speeches banned on mainstream media through Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA). Then the impact of those speeches forced Prime Minister Imran Khan to appear on a television interview to counter Sharif’s remarks.

Imran Khan in a TV interview on Thursday said what Sharif wanted him to say. Khan, while accusing Sharif of targeting the Pakistani establishment at the behest of India, said he himself still has the backing of the establishment, and he perhaps never realized that Sharif had built his case around the same argument. Sharif and the PML-N accuse Khan of coming to power on the back of the establishment, and Khan unconsciously endorsed their point.

In any case, PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif was arrested in Lahore after his older brother Nawaz took on the establishment, and slogans against the establishment were chanted.

It perhaps was the first time that supporters of a mainstream political party from Punjab raised the slogans that had already been raised in the small provinces. Rising inflation and a deteriorating economy have damaged the reputation of this hybrid regime, and public anger over misgovernance and tough economic conditions is reaching a boiling point.

In such a time of crisis, any sane government would have tried to reconcile with the opposition, but both Imran Khan and the establishment seem to be prisoners of their egos and are doing the opposite. They are choosing to crack down on the PML-N and other opposition parties and trying to play the treason card against dissenting political leaders.

The treason card is the most effective card used by the establishment to silence dissenting voices, but with the passage of time this card is losing its value. No sane person who has a little knowledge of the modern world believes in this ploy any more, and the majority of the masses understand that this card is played to protect the hegemony of the establishment over the state and its resources.

Sharif possibly will face a treason charge after his aggressive stance against the establishment and making the invisible role of the military in political engineering public. However, this time the treason card may not work, as the majority of the educated masses want to express themselves and consider the restrictions of free speech and expression a threat to the future of the country.

Now, courtesy of Sharif, who has turned the previously pro-establishment province of Punjab into a wholly anti-establishment base, it will not be possible for the establishment to use treason charges effectively against Sharif or dissident journalists.

Perhaps Khan and the establishment both know that the treason shield will not be as effective as in the past. This is the reason the prime minister in his interview accused the former ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, of being an agent of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and conspiring against the Pakistani establishment, while Sharif every day is being accused, with the help of the controlled section of the press, of working against the state at the behest of foreign powers.

Up to now Sharif has only spoken about the political engineering by the establishment, and one wonders what will happen if he chooses to highlight the surrender of East Pakistan, the Kargil fiasco, the Abbottabad operation, the role of the establishment in running a business empire, and enforced disappearances.

It is a bumpy road ahead for both Imran Khan and the establishment as Sharif has burned his boats and will do everything possible to oust the bigwigs of the establishment who according to him first engineered the judicial proceedings to convict him and then rigged the 2018 general elections and brought Khan to power.

In fact, what the establishment is unable to realize is that it has already lost the game because the political divide within the country is getting deeper and deeper, and this is not a normal political divide. This is a divide based on hatred of one side against the other.

The vote banks of the PML-N and the other opposition parties are not ready to accept this political order for long, whereas the establishment’s admirers and the PTI vote bank are not ready to give space to any of the opposition parties. As if this were not enough, Sharif’s re-entry to politics has further widened this divide, and he still is the most popular leader in Punjab and remains a big challenge for the establishment.

After all, Sharif has crossed the red line and has directly engaged the military elite, and now at least his vote bank is not ready to keep the establishment on the pedestal of a sacred cow.

This means that despite the “accountability” witch-hunt and around-the-clock propaganda against Sharif, the mighty establishment has failed miserably to oust him from politics, and now he is gearing up for a comeback.

Sharif did the same against the dictator General Pervez Musharraf when he first bought time and went into exile and then came back strongly and knocked Musharraf out of power by backing the lawyers’ movement for restoration of judges in 2007.

It was the lawyers’ movement that actually weakened Musharraf, and Sharif fully supported the movement. So those who are the manufacturers of the current political discourse know that in order to survive they need to remain in power, as the day they fall out of power it will become much easier for Sharif to bring them to account.

For now, it is Sharif who is pushing the actual rulers of Pakistan on to the back foot and has created a space for him and his party. But those who think that Sharif is taking on the establishment only to gain space perhaps are unaware of the new dynamics of the political landscape of Pakistan.

In modern times, any political party or leader who ditches the masses by making an under-the-table deal with the establishment for temporary relief will lose its credibility in the long run and will lose its popularity. No one knows this better than Sharif, who has spent almost 35 years in politics, and that is why it is not about getting temporary relief or a little political space, it is about knocking the undemocratic forces out of the game. 

The process of political engineering that started from the PTI sit-ins in 2014 finally is proving costly to the unchallenged hegemony of the establishment as the debate against its role in politics has started, and now at least the masses have started thinking about the military’s role in political engineering and in the economic downfall of the country.

Human history tells us that once a right is attained, very rarely do people give it back. So to the credit of Sharif, he at least has forced the right-wing province of Punjab to think out of the box and to demand the supremacy of the constitution. Right now time and circumstances are favoring Sharif, whereas the position of Imran Khan, who has been used as a pawn in this battle, is insecure.

How long the establishment will hold its nerve against the popular Punjabi leader and his Punjabi vote bank remains to be seen.

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.