Jab They Met

On March 7, Chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari tweeted: “Appalled to hear of the callous and inhumane treatment of imprisoned former PM Nawaz Sharif by the government. His illness should be treated seriously, be provided with proper medical care and treated with respect.” On March 11, he visited an ailing Mian Nawaz Sharif in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail.

Bilawal Bhutto’s gracious act of visiting the former prime minister and chief of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is being given a political angle by the PPP and PML-N’s opponents, namely the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). There are many reasons for this ‘spin’ by the PTI. For one, the PTI was caught off guard as it was an unexpected visit. Sure, we have heard the PPP leadership condemn the insensitive way the Punjab government has been treating Mian Nawaz Sharif’s health but most people did not expect that Chairman PPP would actually go and meet the PML-N leader in jail.

After the meeting, we saw how the opponents of these two parties started talking about some sort of political conspiracy and also calling it an alliance of the ‘corrupt’. They also started quoting Bilawal Bhutto’s old anti-Nawaz statements and asked why there was a sudden change of heart now. The PPP leadership pointed out that our culture teaches us to respect our elders. Others noted that both our culture and religion also teach us that if someone is ill, we should pay them a visit. This is common courtesy; an act of decency. Some PML-N leaders pointed out that the PTI does not appreciate the concept of decency as the party leadership itself isn’t ‘gracious’ at all. While all this may be true, some pundits are of the opinion that this meeting has served as an ice-breaker between the PPP and the PML-N.

As per reports, Mian Nawaz Sharif greatly appreciated Bilawal Bhutto’s kind gesture and was genuinely touched by it. These parties may have formed an alliance against the ruling PTI in recent months but they still do not trust each other completely. Bilawal-Nawaz meeting may be able to bridge the trust deficit to some extent.

Those who remember the 1990s know how the leadership of these two parties was involved in political conspiracies against each other. This bitter rivalry continued for over a decade. A few years after the 1999 coup, (late) Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif realised that these missteps by them had hurt democracy in the long run and they vowed not to repeat such mistakes again. Thus, they signed the Charter of Democracy (CoD). They overcame their bitter rivalry of yore for the larger good of democracy in Pakistan.

When Benazir Bhutto was martyred in a terrorist attack on December 27, 2007, we saw a visibly shaken and shattered Nawaz Sharif at the hospital where she had been taken after the attack. Mian sahib still remembers Shaheed Mohtarma quite fondly.

The PML-N made some mistakes again after the PPP came to power in 2008. The Memogate issue is one such example where Mian Nawaz Sharif acted as the B-Team of undemocratic forces.

When the PML-N came to power in 2013, the PPP was seen as a much softer Opposition initially. Then we saw how the PML-N left PPP in the lurch after the establishment went after PPP leadership in Sindh. This led to the PPP playing an important role in getting rid of the PML-N government in Balochistan just a few months before the 2018 general elections and also playing a rather undemocratic role in the Senate elections the same year. Many political experts saw this as a move of cosying up to the establishment by the PPP. In the end, it did not work.

The PPP has historically been known as an anti-establishment party but the PML-N took on this mantle during the 2018 elections. After the elections, we did not hear the same kind of tough talk by the PML-N leadership as we saw post-Panama. Some say it is because of the ongoing court cases, others say that Nawaz Sharif is angry with his own party (and his brother Shahbaz Sharif) for not taking a proper stand for him when he and his daughter Maryam Nawaz willingly came back to be arrested. Whatever the reason may be for their deafening political silence, both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz’s style of politics is surely being missed by the PML-N cadre and workers. Bilawal Bhutto, on the other hand, is openly calling out the state for its electoral management and other flawed policies. More than the PML-N, it is Bilawal Bhutto who is taking on the PTI government. He has irked the PTI leadership more than anybody else. No wonder Finance Minister Asad Umar and Prime Minister Imran Khan resorted to personal jabs and even went to the extent of passing sexist remarks over the ‘Bhutto’ in Bilawal’s name.

Jab they – Bilawal Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – met, it sent shivers down the spines of all those who are still fearful of the popularity of the two political parties. Bilawal Bhutto and the PPP have commended Mian Nawaz Sharif for taking a principled stand and for his uncompromising position. The PPP Chairman told the media after this meeting that the two leaders also discussed Charter of Democracy and how they failed to implement the CoD in its entirety. The two parties have now decided to work with other political parties in order to re-emphasise the CoD.

It is too early to say how successful this meeting will be in the long run but one can safely say that it has ruffled some feathers. PTI is in a tough position at the moment. Pakistan’s economy is in trouble and the PTI does not have a plan. Finance Minister Asad Umar seems clueless and even some of his well-wishers have started questioning his capacity to run Pakistan’s economy. The PTI has also alienated the entire Opposition. The PML-N and the PPP believe that the PTI will crumble under its own weight.

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