March 23, 2018 being Pakistan Day produced the usual spate of messages from leaders. While many of such messages are traditionally conventional, noteworthy ones too were on display this time. Perhaps the most significant amongst these was the riposte of Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Saqib Nisar to the suggestion by Sheikh Rashid of the one-man Awami Muslim League that the CJP should declare a 90-day judicial martial law in the run-up to the general elections and decide who should head the caretaker government. The CJP, while addressing a Pakistan Day ceremony at his alma mater Cathedral School, Lahore, categorically rejected any notion of judicial martial law, pointing out that there is no such provision in the Constitution. He underlined that the judiciary would not allow any deviation from the Constitution or democracy to be derailed. The CJP’s clear message should help scotch such outlandish suggestions and the rumours to which they have given birth. Meanwhile in another significant move, it seems that after Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has been appointed the president of the PML-N, his brother and ousted prime minister and former head of the party Nawaz Sharif appears to be stepping back from the confrontational posture he has adopted since his disqualification. Shahbaz Sharif is well known to be a pragmatist. No doubt he has been advising Nawaz Sharif and the party to reconsider their aggressive strategy on the eve of the general elections. Nawaz Sharif’s and his daughter Mariam Sharif’s strident campaign against the judiciary that has disqualified him has been read by analysts as bringing him to a confrontation with the army, believed to be backing the judiciary’s proactive approach since the Panama Papers case. This perception has of late been reinforced by that part of the COAS ‘Bajwa doctrine’ that speaks of defending the judiciary against its detractors. Sober reflection on these developments by the PML-N leadership may have persuaded them that the aggressive rhetoric has run its course after providing the PML-N with a ‘cementing’ effect to prevent defections and splintering of the party’s ranks. The PML-N, like all its predecessor Muslim Leagues in our history, is not the sort of party whose parliamentarians would be inclined to stick with it through thick and thin, particularly if their electoral prospects (and related good fortune) are threatened by conflict with the establishment. The new turn or approach seems to be aimed at preventing a repeat of the debacles the PML-N suffered in the downfall of its coalition government in Balochistan and the Senate elections that followed. And speaking of the aftermath of the rout of the PML-N-led government in Quetta, one of the main protagonists of that defeat, Balochistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti has revealed that Balochistan Chief Minister Quddus Bizenjo will soon be announcing a new party that will accommodate the PML-N ‘dissidents’ and some tribal chiefs. How he claims this will be different from any other party escapes the imagination. The new formation will be led by former governor and chief minister Balochistan Zulfiqar Magsi. The Jamalis reportedly will play an important role in the new party. These revelations indicate that this party is intended to give a political identity to all those who deserted the PML-N in Balochistan and rope in the willing tribal chiefs to have a chance in the general elections. The concatenation of forces that this platform aims to gather seems poised to make a good showing in the coming general elections.
While the PML-N may be revising its strategy and turning away from confrontation towards reconciliation with the powers-that-be, what remains to be seen is what the establishment’s response will be. It goes without saying that even if the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases go against them and Nawaz, Mariam and Shahbaz Sharif all land up in jail, the PML-N, with or without the Sharifs, will still have to go into the electoral contest. Based on their standing in Punjab, reflected partially in the massive rallies Nawaz and Mariam Sharif have been addressing of late, the party’s chances in the general elections are still bright. The PML-N therefore is trying to hedge its bets, preserve its stronghold Punjab, prevent any flight of ‘seasonal sparrows’ from its ranks, and march forward to face its electoral rivals with confidence.