Journalists sometimes use high noon to refer to a crisis or event which is likely to decide finally what is going to happen in a conflict or situation (Collins English Dictionary)
As Nawaz Sharif took his seat on the stage in Lodhran on Saturday afternoon, you could see him struggling not to break into a wide grin. Only six months earlier he had been left for dead politically by all and sundry — a lonely, dejected and crestfallen figure expected to quietly ride into the sunset. And yet today here he was surrounded by his closest people waving to a crowd that had delivered him a stunning victory in a constituency that was expected to vote for his staunchest opponent.
Suddenly the defeated man is the man to defeat in Elections 2018. Is this high noon for Noon (N-League)?
In the Lodhran by-election, the victory of Nawaz Sharif and the vanquishing of Imran Khan has sealed and stamped a growing perception that the PML-N is gaining momentum in Punjab at the expense of a de-focused, dithering and doubting PTI. With less than a hundred days to go before the present assemblies are dissolved and a caretaker set-up enters the fray, time is clearly not on Imran’s side. The fog of politics has yet again played a trick on those who had pocketed victory before victory had been achieved. And yet in these foggy times, some things are getting clearer by the day.
The impact of the Lodhran victory is not confined to the constituency itself. In the wake of what is clearly an ‘upset’, many people are debating what won the election: Nawaz’s narrative, Shehbaz’s development work or clever management at the local level? There are plenty of arguments to support each position — and yet none really matters.
The fact is that a victory has been achieved against all odds. It is this reality, and not the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’, that is shaping perceptions, beliefs and political calculations beyond the constituency. Lodhran as a symbol means much more than Lodhran as a constituency election. Had the PTI won, this victory would have amounted to nothing more than a validation of a generally accepted reality that since 2015 this was Tareen territory. Even today the PML-N winning candidate — who is revelling in his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame — is a diminished figure in comparison to the number of votes he has polled. He may fade into relative oblivion once the raucous celebrations end but the political ripples generated by the Lodhran victory will continue to lap against the stony shores of the looming elections campaign.
They will do so because they corroborate a widely held belief that no one does the science of electioneering better than the PML-N. This maxim holds true if applied to the argument that the Nawaz/Maryam narrative won the Lodhran fight; it holds true if transplanted on to the logic that Shehbaz’s quiet and steady development in the area won dividends; and it also hold true if correlated to the reasoning that it was deft local management that triggered an avalanche of votes for the PML-N.
If such logic holds true for Lodhran, would it not do the same for other constituencies in Punjab? The Sharif quiver, as it appears now, has many arrows: Nawaz/Maryam narrative of defiance, the doer/deliverer image of Shehbaz, the wide array of electables in important constituencies backed by the massive battle-hardened electoral machinery of the party, the well-oiled and coordinated party organisation and structure at the grassroots level and the nimble yet coarse science of election-day management. That’s a lot of electoral ammunition for the war that lies ahead on the other side of May 31.
What then is the best that could happen for the PML-N in the next hundred days? Nawaz and Maryam get acquitted in the trial. If that happens, the Sharif juggernaut would be near impossible to stop.
More importantly, however, what’s the worst that could happen? Nawaz and Maryam get convicted by the court and are sent to prison pending their appeals. This means they are handcuffed, put in a van, transported to prison and locked inside. The real deal. Not the hospital-type ‘incarceration’ that the rich and powerful are accustomed to. This could be followed by a Supreme Court decision removing Nawaz as president of the party while another decision upholds his lifetime disqualification. If all this were to happen, father and daughter would not only be in a lockup, they would be out of the electoral scene completely.
At this point two narratives will smash into each other in a cosmic collision. The Sharif narrative will say a biased judiciary was expected to give such a verdict and therefore this confirms what they have been saying since Nawaz was disqualified. Through such a narrative they would attempt to turbo-charge their campaign which from then onwards would revolve around the victimhood slogan. And if Nawaz and Maryam are videoed in handcuffs this would be a ‘gift’ that the Sharifs would gladly accept. In a charged political atmosphere, such an image would set their voter base on fire. Or so they hope.
The Imran narrative will say the conviction has proved what he has been saying all along: that Sharifs are guilty. This narrative will declare the guilty verdict a validation of Imran’s consistent stand and a resounding victory for his cause. The narrative will try and paint Imran as the lone crusader against corruption whose successful vanquishing of Sharif is proof enough that he is worthy of wearing the prime ministerial crown.
If the verdict comes by mid-March, both parties will have roughly four months to wage the war of narratives on the campaign trail. The legal process would be over; the political process would be in high gear. Whoever wins the narrative will win the election. It may be as simple as that.
And yet, will it?
So far the biggest success of the Nawaz/Maryam campaign has been to snatch the narrative away from the opposition. Till July last year Imran campaigned on an anti-Nawaz crusade and nothing else. He was what Nawaz was not. Then came the disqualification verdict. Nawaz was out of a job. Imran was out of a narrative. In ‘mujhe kyon nikala’ (why was I ousted?) Nawaz found a new narrative. Imran did not. He still kept on making it all about Nawaz whereas it should now have been all about Imran.
Imran has four months to turn this around and make this election about him. If by June the election still seems like it’s all about how good Nawaz is and how bad Nawaz is, then it will become fairly clear that the election is all about Nawaz. Whichever way you look at it, this cannot be good for Imran Khan.
High noon can bathe you in light or burn you in heat.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2018.
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