In-house rift exposes the soft underbelly of PML-N

PM's refusal to heed Nisar's advice to let former military dictator Pervez Musharraf go abroad, Defence Minister Khwaja Asif's push to continue prosecuting him in a high treason case, drew a visible wedge between them

When militants armed with automatic weapons, a rocket launcher, suicide vests, and grenades attacked Karachi airport at night last month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reportedly, could not trace Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan until the next morning.

Opposition Leader Khurshid Shah disclosed this in a speech on the floor of the House recently — without denial from the ruling party!

If true — and it is hard to dispel at least the distance that has spawned over time between the PM and his interior minister as explained by their belated rendezvous last week to sort out differences — this partly explains why the incumbent government is losing credibility and trust.

When Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) romped home in last year's elections at the Centre and in the powerful Punjab province — albeit against loud protests of rigging, which now threaten to snowball into something of a movement with Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) vowing a million-man march on Islamabad on August 14 — the expectation was that the party would address the multitude of governing issues that its predecessor, Pakistan People's Party (PPP), failed spectacularly at, leading to its decimation as a major national political force at the hustings.

However, two months over a year, the PML-N is ironically, riven by in-house fraction matched in its intensity only by the relentless opposition of Khan's PTI. It remains to be seen if the threat of an impending 'tsunami' promised by the PTI will finally, serve to unite the disparate ruling party.

One of the major strengths of PML-N always lay in its clutch of political heavyweights, who boast a wealth of experience as part of the previous two Sharif governments. The party's economic team, in particular, was envied even by opponents. It still has scores of stalwarts with ministerial stints at both the provincial and federal level to their credit.

However, this strength has given way to overarching tendency among some of the closest aides of Sharif to try to grab, retain or increase their influence with the prime minister — at each other's expense. The sorry spectacle has escaped the attention of neither the opposition nor the media, but what should worry the hapless citizens are reports that the chief executive may have himself allowed some of the tension to simmer in order to keep the demanding flock at an arm's length.

However, the wide chasm between the PM and his interior minister has proved costly at a time when Pakistan is locked in an existential war with the armed forces engaged in their biggest ever military operation against the militants. But Nisar, who is notoriously inaccessible even during "peacetime", decided to go AWOL after the PM ignored him in taking the decision to launch the military operation.

Nisar has long argued for a peace dialogue with the outlawed Tehreek Taleban Pakistan, which however, ran its course after several fits and starts over months during which the militants even unleashed provocative attacks, including beheading nearly two dozen soldiers in their captivity for more than three years, to have a better bargaining chip.

This, and the PM's refusal to heed Nisar's advice to let former military dictator Pervez Musharraf go abroad in favour of his other aide, Defence Minister Khwaja Asif's push to continue prosecuting him in a high treason case, drew a visible wedge between them. However, Sharif and Nisar have a bit of history that refuses to go away, and could yet lead to a worst case scenario if they are unable to take their current rapprochement forward.

Nisar, who carried on the mantle of the opposition leader in the national parliament during Sharif's forced exile in Saudi Arabia at the hands of Musharraf, was eyeing the powerful slot of Punjab's chief minister in the PML-N's latest stint.

When Sharif did not acquiesce, Nisar defied party policy to contest as an independent for a provincial seat whilst also fighting two National Assembly (NA) seats under the PML-N banner in last year's elections. However, he lost the provincial as well as one of the two NA seats, which effectively, nixed his chances of building pressure for the chief minister's slot. Still, taking no chances, Sharif decided to retain his younger brother Shahbaz as the CM.

Nisar is currently, competing for influence with Defence Minister Khwaja Asif and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, whose son is married to Sharif's daughter. The PM continues to lend his ears to Asif and Dar in preference to Nisar, who however, because of his own political weight has more than once made his annoyance embarrassingly obvious. Long back, he had threatened to join the PPP and, in recent months, he has intriguingly, made overtly friendly gestures to PTI, forcing the PM to once change his stance at the eleventh hour in order to keep the party's peace.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad.All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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