Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is going through a transmogrification. The party leadership has realised that it overplayed its hand when it tried to thumb its nose at the circles of power. Its pre-election slogan “Give Respect to the Vote” now seems like a painful reminder of a political misstep. In private conversations, leaders concede that the decision to try to take on the state institutions was a fatal mistake. The headiness of the pre-election slogans, the passion, and the energy of the narrative is punctured. It all seems like a nightmare that could have been avoided. There is a wringing of hands. There is lingering regret.

But let me digress for a bit.

Yusuf Raza Gilani, the former PPP prime minister, has shared a wonderful anecdote about politics. Mr Gilani narrates how once in the late 80s he was told by his uncle Pir Pagara to start lobbying to be the Punjab Chief Minister. At that point Nawaz Sharif was the chief minister of the province and had tried to assert his independence. Gilani, who was the railways minister at the time, started a campaign in all earnestness. After some time when Gilani thought he had mustered the support of enough MPs, he went back to his uncle with the news. The uncle laughed him off and revealed that he had just used the young nephew for a bigger political ploy. “We just wanted to teach Nawaz Sharif a lesson,” the elder Pagara said. Mr Gilani says he felt bitter about it since he had very good terms with Nawaz Sharif prior to that episode.

The story shines a light on the real game of politics. People are expedient. And, so are the ideals. At the altar of politics, principles are the first casualty. And the biggest rule of the game in Pakistani politics is that there are no rules.

Shehbaz Sharif has expressed this frustration in a recent interview with Sohail Warraich. Shehbaz Sharif discloses for the first time that he was holding talks with powerful circles until a month before the elections. The talks deliberated on the future cabinet, he said. Shehbaz Sharif is also not new to the game, and he presumes that similar talks were probably being held with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also. At the time of the negotiations, Shehbaz Sharif, like any other civilian politician, would have had no way to ascertain the genuineness of the interlocutors from the other side. In fact, the team of interlocutors could have been negotiating in good faith also. The real intention, the real game plan would be known only to the top end of the power pyramid.

And, it is also true that just a few weeks before the elections, most of the political pundits and observers thought that PML-N would win as it seemingly maintained its stronghold over Punjab. This view was shared by many western diplomats and even one official — currently enjoying a senior position in the current set up — who was an independent observer before the elections.

Shehbaz Sharif now says that the narrative adopted by PML-N lost the party the election. This realisation was present in a group within the party even during the election campaign. While some leaders rallied around Maryam Nawaz Sharif, believing in her message, others reluctantly joined the chorus. They raised the slogans, but their hearts were not in it. They feel that Mian Nawaz Sharif overestimated his popularity and underestimated the extent to which the election campaign could fail.

This grim realisation has forced party stalwarts to change their narrative. Since last autumn, the PML-N leadership has started singing a different tune. The absolute cooperation lent to the legislation that gave the army chief another term is a reflection of this realisation.

Most of the leadership in PML-N felt that by extending an olive branch, it could revive its sagging fortunes. Some have termed it a capitulation. Some have called it pragmatism. Some say it is penitence of their gross miscalculation.

But it might be too late. Despite all the speculation about the differences between Prime Minister Khan and the military leadership, there are no signs that a secretive machination is afoot to lodge a national government in the next few months. In fact, PM Khan is in a unique position. Despite the bungling of his government over key economic and development issues, despite the often confused and mixed signals over important policy matters, he is in not being seen as the problem. The occasional differences don’t necessarily mean a breaking point.

Tariq Aziz, the famous television host who himself dabbled in politics in an unsuccessful attempt, gave a poignant reply once when he was asked about politics. With a deep sigh, Aziz said: “Politics is heartless.”

By giving conciliatory messages, the PML-N leaders have made yet another gamble, burdened under the weight of their penitence. They are hoping that there will be a soft corner for them in the heart of the powers that be, and it can pave the way for their return to top. But it can be a long wait before any silver lining.