Suddenly, Maryam Nawaz has catapulted herself onto the front pages of the national media as she takes centerstage in the rough and tumble of politics — and that too, apparently, on her own terms. Aggressive, confident, defiant, she has emerged as the undisputed heir to her father’s political legacy. And the brand new face of the opposition — an opposition that mostly played it safe, knew its limits and seldom crossed the red line.
Her uncle, middle-of-the-roader Shehbaz Sharif, stands sidelined; he watches the high-stakes political game being played and the brinkmanship of his party from behind bars. He does not want to apply for bail — at least, not now as the “hawks of resistance” take over the mantle of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), pushing it into uncharted territory. Perhaps, it makes more sense for Shehbaz to watch the show from prison and await his turn — when and if it ever comes.
Maryam has played a key role in pushing the PML-N in the direction of a single narrative. The talk of there being two narratives within the party has died down. The PML-N now boasts only one narrative — and that is being set by Nawaz Sharif from London and voiced by Maryam and her loyalists in Pakistan.
Yes, there is a certain measure of discomfort and unease within the ranks over the strong anti-army line taken at the jalsas in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta, especially the targeting, by name, of the Chief of Army Staff General, Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the Chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed. There have been some desertions as well, but the party has already factored them in and the loss has so far been manageable. More local leaders and lawmakers belonging to the party may distance themselves from the central leadership in the coming days and weeks, but according to the hawks, the popular face and galvanising force of the party — Maryam and Nawaz respectively — will not let the party’s graph go down in Punjab, the province which matters the most to them.
Maryam is also being credited by some for what they call the “feat” of standing her ground in pushing the anti-establishment agenda in the mainstream politics of Punjab for the first time ever. Since the September 20 hard-hitting speech by Nawaz Sharif at the multi-party conference, the pace and tone of PML-N’s politics has totally transformed.
In her close-knit circle of party confidants, Maryam is affectionately called ‘M.’ She represents the populist face of the party, who sees offence as the best and the only strategy.
Some of those senior PML-N leaders, who usually remained out of favour with Shehbaz Sharif — his outer circle, so to say — remain the closest to Maryam. Among them are Pervaiz Rashid, Muhammed Zubair, Talal Chaudhry, Musadiq Malik and Uzma Bukhari. Marriyum Aurengzeb, too, is very close to Maryam Nawaz, but she can be counted among those who would be acceptable to her uncle’s camp as well.
“Maryam is bitter, angry and defiant,” says a senior PML-N leader, in a background interview. “She is far more emotional and aggressive as compared to her father, who is calm and collected and does not show his bitterness despite being shown the door thrice by the powers-that-be. Maryam has stood beside her father like a rock and is deeply pained by what she believes is the unfair treatment meted out to him,” he says.
Always impeccably turned out — her diamond jewellery and her Manolo Blahnik heels have been the subject of much social media titter — she may lack the warmth and political acumen of Benazir Bhutto, but she manages to hold her own in a crowd. Equally well versed in both English and Urdu, she strings her sentences together artfully. Unsurprisingly, she is seen as a better communicator and more articulate than her father.
Compared to the conventional Muslim Leaguers, she is considered open-minded, liberal and modern. Her husband Safdar Awan, however, is said to be conservative and narrow-minded. That could be one of the reasons why Maryam prefers to keep him out of decision-making. But according to PML-N sources, speculation of discord between the wife and husband are untrue and exaggerated. “They crack jokes with each another; however, it is also a fact that in this relationship, Maryam has the upper hand,” remarks a PML-N insider.
Her life in seclusion in recent years has had considerable impact in shaping her personality, and especially in strengthening her defiant attitude. She tutors herself in economics, politics and history by asking probing questions from the seniors around her. And she has memorised all the “buzzwords” of political, economic and social discourse, which helps her sail through her meetings with experts in their respective fields.
Recently, Maryam has also started taking an interest in constituency politics — the who’s who of a biradari and the interplay of caste and clan loyalties in electoral politics etc. — which was seen as a forte of Hamza Shahbaz among the young generation of the Sharifs. And, according to insiders, Maryam is learning the ropes fast, as she prepares to wear the undisputed crown of her father’s party.
Those who are close to Maryam describe her as a charmer. “She has charisma and leadership qualities, but often takes a back seat to allow other seniors party members, especially Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, to take centrestage during political and media interactions, though it is another matter that wherever she sits, the cameras and lights follow her,” remarks another PMLN leader.
Her charm and charisma aside, the path that Maryam has taken is being seen as “dangerous,” even by her loyalists. The anti-establishment rhetoric may win applause from the small, but influential segment of liberals in society, the sub-nationalist parties and PML-N followers at rallies, but she has to face the stark reality that the institution of the army is not only very powerful, but it is regarded as the most trustworthy and popular of those at the helm by a vast majority of Pakistanis. Any attempts to malign the army or divide its rank-and-file, which the Sharifs are trying to do, will not just lead to a strong institutional backlash, but it is also an unpopular line to take in the larger framework of politics.
One of the main and immediate aims of the father/daughter combine is to create political space for themselves, which stands blocked because of their disqualification from holding public office following convictions in corruption cases. While the PML-N stalwarts describe these verdicts against their leaders as “weak” and “flawed,” the sword of other cases also continues to hang over their heads. The Panama Papers, contradictory statements by the entire Sharif family, other scandals, including the infamous one relating to the Calibri font, are like millstones around the neck of the former ruling family.
Nawaz Sharif has paid a heavy price for his political defiance and stubbornness in the past, and he appears to be ready to pay it again.
“Both he and Maryam have calculated the risks of their policy. Maryam’s name is already on the ECL (Exit Control List)… there is the possibility of her arrest, but she is not afraid,” claims a PML-N leader.
But calculations can go wrong and political brinkmanship can have a bigger price tag than imagined. This latest political gamble can be a make or break chance for the political ambitions of Maryam and of Nawaz Sharif, who wants to pass on the mantle of leadership to his daughter.
“We know that no mainstream politician has taken this kind of anti-army leadership stand in the Punjab… it is too early to say whether it is the right move or a wrong one,” Maryam’s confidant admits.
In the view of Sharif loyalists, the best strategy would be to build enough pressure on the military leadership so that it distances itself from Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and helps Nawaz and Maryam return to the arena of electoral politics. The platform of the 11-party alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is being used to serve this objective, provided all its members remain on the same page.
However, Sharifs’ strong anti-army stance is creating and deepening fissures in some of the allied parties. Moreover, PML-N’s top leaders do not see the Pakistan Peoples’ Party as a dependable ally. They think that the PPP can ditch the PML-N anytime, as it has a stake in the system and may not want to topple it. Also, it is speculated, it could be promised certain concessions to contain the Sharifs and their party.
Conversely, the PML-N’s game could also backfire. Instead of creating a rift between the army and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government, its anti-army rhetoric could bring them closer and create more hostility within the institution towards the Sharif family.
At the end of the day, this politics of brinkmanship has many ifs and buts attached to it. However, Maryam has managed to convince her father that the policy of cooperation has not helped them to get back into the game and that confrontation remains the only option.
The big question is: will Maryam’s confrontationist strategy work?
Even the hawks on her side remain sceptical. But nothing is impossible in Pakistan’s politics and its flawed democratic system. One cannot rule out the return of today’s disgraced politicians as allies and preferred choices of the same powers that had booted them out.
Former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf had ruled out both Sharif and Benazir Bhutto from politics and had vowed never to allow them to return. But the same Musharraf later negotiated a deal with Benazir, though what followed was bitterness and acrimony between them and it eventually paved the way for Nawaz Sharif’s return to power for the third time.
Compared to her father, Maryam is likely to prove a tough nut to crack for the establishment, now and in the years to come, if she continues on the same trajectory. Her latest gamble will define her political future, once and for all. The stakes for the Sharif family have never been higher.