Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, speaks during a public rally of the newly formed Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance of 11 parties, in Karachi on October 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Rizwan Tabssum

The combined opposition under the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDM) platform is staging public gatherings against the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government. So far the PDM has staged two massive shows of strength by attracting huge crowds in Gujranwala and Karachi.

Under normal circumstances, this movement of opposition against the government and its backers would have been termed as typical opposition parties’ efforts to dislodge or weaken the government.

However, that is not the case. Two of the mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), faced with the wrath of military establishment and bearing the brunt in the form of a one-sided “accountability” drive, have been pushed against the wall.

The thrice-elected prime minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif, first was jailed and then sent to London for medical treatment. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who came to power with the backing of the establishment, used accountability as a tool to undermine his political opponents, while the establishment made sure that the opposition, especially Sharif’s PML-N, should be taught a lesson for not adhering to the rules set by the establishment.

However, since the re-emergence of Sharif in Pakistani politics from his London base, things have changed dramatically.

On Friday, October 16, in the first public gathering of the PDM since all that happened, Sharif delivered perhaps the strongest speech ever given by a political leader in the history of the country.

Sharif in his address to the massive gathering in Gujranwala accused the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, of toppling his government and rigging the political discourse. He also accused General Faiz Hameed, the director general of Inter-Service Intelligence, of manipulating the court proceedings and rigging the ballot.

While directly naming Bajwa and Faiz, Sharif vowed to make them accountable for destabilizing his government and rigging the elections of 2018. Sharif also accused former chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar of manipulating judicial proceedings against him and of favoring PTI.

It was Sharif’s show all the way, as he fearlessly issued a charge sheet against a few of the bigwigs of the military establishment. Perhaps he even took his detractors by surprise as no one was expecting such a speech from a thrice-elected prime minister.

After all, this speech means that Sharif has decided to go all out against the establishment for its interference in politics. Whether he will succeed or not is a different question, but for sure he has broken the chains of fear. The whispers in private conversations on the role of the establishment in engineering the political discourse he brought to the public domain bduring the rally in Gujranwala.

No one expected a popular political leader from Punjab to take such a hard line against the establishment, but Sharif has created history. Perhaps he has paid off the debt of Punjab, which remained silent for the last 73 years as the other provinces accused it of aligning with the establishment.

This speech of Sharif’s has raised the temperature of the politics of Pakistan and now it is the government of Imran Khan, General Bajwa and General Faiz that is feeling the heat. A defiant Sharif ready to lock horns with the current leadership of the establishment was the last thing Khan would have wanted, as his survival is dependent on Bajwa and Faiz.

Sharif clearly is looking for “minus three,” which means he wants to get rid of Khan, Bajwa and Faiz. This perhaps is the toughest battle Sharif will fight and it will test his vast experience of politics along with his nerve.

For the establishment, this perhaps is the last chance to arrange a face-saving exit and stop intervening in politics. There is a clear change in the political landscape: Henceforth a controlled press or controlled democracy will not enable the establishment to keep its hegemony intact over the state and its resources.

The role of the establishment in politics is now being discussed in every nook and cranny of the country. The powerful establishment can place a ban on Sharif or his political party by terming them traitors and against the institutions of the country, but to ban the politics of the most popular leader in the country and head of the largest political party will backfire.

The economic hardships faced by the masses will not be fixed by trying to dismantle the political party of Sharif. Even the accountability witch-hunt will not be effective in silencing Sharif and now, when he has successfully spread his narrative to the streets of Punjab, smearing him as a traitor or accusing him of corruption will not save the day for General Bajwa and his aides.

It was written on the wall that in the changing world where social media and digital publications have replaced the traditional mainstream media, it would be impossible for the establishment to move the strings from behind the curtains. Still, the bigwigs of the establishment decided to oust Sharif on vague charges and controversial judicial decisions. Now the outcome of this political battle is out of the hands of the establishment and its allies.

The takeover of the media by the invisible forces that started even before Bajwa took charge and that threw dissident journalists like us from the Pakistani media and that saw propagandists working in the guise of journalists – even all that is not able to counter the narrative of Sharif.

In fact, the narrative of corruption and treason built against Sharif is backfiring now. With every passing moment, Sharif is taking charge of the proceedings. Although the response of establishment is yet to be seen after Sharif’s decisive and historic speech in Gujranwala, Sharif undoubtedly has turned the tables.

Historically in Pakistan, the army chiefs who got extensions to their tenures became weak and unpopular. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is an example in this regard. Despite being popular among the ranks, he lost his popularity after seeking an extension in his tenure as chief of army staff. So General Bajwa may not be enjoying the same popularity he had in 2018.

On the other hand, Sharif, after facing the consequences of going against the establishment, is becoming more popular thanks to a wave of sympathy for him in the province of Punjab. This means that this battle will not last long: Within the span of few months, either Sharif will change the course of history by outsmarting the establishment or the establishment, with some sort of miracle, will prevail over Sharif.

A defiant Sharif was always going to outsmart the establishment, especially when he was pushed to the wall, but the establishment fell prey to its own propaganda and somehow started living in the hallucination that Sharif was history and that it had won the political battle.

This was the illusion of a victory that was never real, as Sharif never was defeated and he in fact was waiting for the right time and place to play his cards.

A political leader always has ample time unlike the serving government officers who are bound to retire someday, so it was never in doubt that Sharif would make a comeback. Now, much to the horror of the establishment and Khan, Sharif has bounced back, this time with a narrative that is making him popular all over the country, and he undoubtedly is riding the wave of popularity of his lifetime.

Meanwhile Imran Khan, who was made a political brand by the invisible forces, is becoming unpopular with the passage of time.

It is up to the establishment now whether it wants to carry on this useless political battle that Sharif at some point will win – or gracefully admit its mistake and go back to the constitutional role of protecting the borders.

Actually it is unlikely that the establishment will go back to its constitutional role as, in response to the Sharif speech, his son in law Captain Safdar was arrested in Karachi.

According to Maryam, her husband was taken at 4 am after the police broke the door of the hotel room to get inside the room. Prominent journalist Hamid Mir tweeted that the inspector general of Sindh Police was kidnapped by the rangers late at night and forced to lodge a complaint against Safdar.

Imagine a country where a provincial police chief is kidnapped and forced to book a political opponent in a case. This shows the pettiness and vindictiveness of the establishment but such tactics for sure will not help protect the establishment’s hegemony over the state.

For now, not only has Sharif won half the battle; he has broken the chains of fear that were used to enslave the dissenting segment of the population.

This itself is a history in the making and Sharif is writing a new chapter in the political history of the country. Whether he will be able to see the fruit of his hard work and calculated risk remains to be seen.

The next three to four months will surely give us the answer to this question. 

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.