The stature of a man is tested in the time of challenges and in facing defeats. Richard Nixon, in his farewell speech at the White House, said that many great men have become mediocre just because of their inability to accept defeats and rise above them. This was the case with Pakistan’s ruling PML-N party when Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from office. From the top tier leaders to political workers, all were shocked and dejected at the decision. It was assumed “the party was over” for Sharif’s PML-N and would then be dismantled.
The one person who really held the party together and actually did a fine job in creating a narrative that is the most popular slogan these days is Maryam Nawaz. She stood firm with her father and with the help of his smart media ties successfully helped Sharif to shun the old style of politics and stand against the most powerful forces of the country. It is actually Maryam Nawaz who is responsible for not only lifting the party to heights when all the chips were down but she also connected the vibrant urban and rural middle class youth to the ruling PML-N. The way she fought the NA-120 by-elections single handed against all the visible and invisible forces proved her mettle as a fighter and a true political heir of Nawaz Sharif .
Maryam asserted her grip on the party’s decision making after the general elections of 2013 and during the sit-in of Imran Khan in 2014. Since her entry into mainstream politics in 2014 she has successfully turned his political party from a conservative pro-establishment force to a progressive and vibrant force. That is the reason she is being targeted by all the political opponents, especially the invisible forces. Hamza Shahbaz, son of Sharif’s younger brother, who was thought to be the next leader of the PML-N, has gone to the back seat. He is not being targeted by any of the opponents nor does anyone now take him as a political threat.
What the party decides is their own internal matter, but the days ahead are tough and if anyone can save the day for them, it is the “M” factor in the PML-N. The “M” factor that is Maryam Nawaz has completely reshaped the party and she has already emerged as the new face of the PML-N. The aggressive and uncompromising style of her politics and her ability to pull larger crowds has already made her the most popular leader after Nawaz Sharif . This is the reason she was being targeted in the “Dawn Leaks”, and then in the Panama leaks.
So far she has stood her ground because her party is in power and her father has a grip on the party’s affairs. But will she be able to pull the crowds and continue to ride the wave of popularity after her party is out of power? In fact her leadership ability and resilience will be tested in a month or two.
Traditionally PML-N has never enjoyed the support of resilient workers in large numbers, their voters are not used to resisting the invisible forces and they only show their resentment or affiliation with the party at the time of voting. But there is something new now, the way Maryam and her father have built the narrative and won the support and sympathy of their voters is quite unprecedented and surprisingly unexpected. No one expected the PML-N to have such a support base that would create a buzz throughout the country.
It is the province of Punjab that is showing dissent to the establishment and chanting ‘give respect to my vote’. One can doubt the narrative of the PML-N, one can criticise they are only doing it for political gain, but the fact still remains that the masses in Punjab are demanding respect for the vote. This is the reason that Nawaz Sharif has already announced that his party will go into the next general election with the slogan and one liner of the manifesto: “Give respect to my vote”.
This is the slogan that was created by Maryam Nawaz and if the PML-N go with this narrative in the elections it will be a clear signal that Maryam Nawaz will be the actual force and face of the PML-N in the times to come. There is, however, also a doubt that even in the presence of Sharif and Maryam, the PML-N will never be allowed to win the elections and come back to power, but with Maryam or Nawaz Sharif being the face, PML-N still stands a chance.
It is almost impossible to rig the ballot on the polling day in the general elections or to buy and pressurise voters like in the Senate. Being involved with the election commission and addressing the polling and rigging issues through an NGO, I can say with conviction that on the polling day it is not possible to change the votes or miscount the number of votes. The only way to rig elections is to dismantle political parties, harass them through the NAB and damage their credibility through the mainstream media with the effective use of propaganda.
So if the elections are to be held, it will be a tough battle and the Maryam factor will surely decide the outcome of the PML-N. If she is allowed to run the campaign, she will garner a much larger support across the country, and if she is put behind bars a wave of sympathy may emerge which will prove crucial to the survival of the party and keeping its vote bank intact. With Shahbaz and his colleagues the PML-N may survive and get a share of the cake in the power corridors but it will never again be able to emerge as strong as it was under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif .
If the PML-N has to survive as it did in the era of Pervez Musharraf, then Maryam needs to be the head of the party. If it decides to survive like the PPP and bend before the invisible forces it will be turned back to the decade of the '90s where it was known as a puppet of the invisible forces. For a compromising and power hungry party with a tag of NRO or a populist, progressive and a pro-democratic force that actually wants to win power through the support and votes of the masses, a decision has to be taken and needs to be done very soon as time is running out.
If the “M” factor prevails we will see a genuine pro-democratic and anti-establishment party from the province of Punjab for the very first time in the political history of Pakistan and the first mainstream party whose slogan will be the respect of the vote and civilian supremacy in elections.