Imran Khan and Maryam: marriage of inconvenience

You take direct shots at the Prime Minister and become the leader of the opposition in the hearts of the public


M Bilal Lakhani November 28, 2021

He couldn’t have remained Prime Minister this long without her. She couldn’t have outflanked her chachu without him. In many ways, Imran Khan and Maryam Nawaz are political soulmates born for this moment in Pakistan’s history. While they play bad cop with each other, they make the perfect combination of good cop, bad cop against the boys, who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is a plot twist even the writers of an ISPR-funded saas bahu drama for Hum TV wouldn’t be able to cook up. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

I’ve been wondering how Imran Khan is defying the laws of political gravity. First, he asserts civilian supremacy in a profound, public and pointed manner with the notification of the DG-ISI appointment. Then he managed to find the votes to pass over two dozen bills in parliament when the media and opposition were braying that the much-vaunted single page had been shredded into the dustbin of history.

Many a fortune teller or pundit on prime time television opined that much of this notification business had to do with the supernatural powers of the main woman in Imran’s life i.e. his wife. I’ll argue that this had to do with natural powers of the other woman in Khan’s life i.e. Maryam. Until Maryam is a political player and continues to put her foot in her mouth — with leaky audio leaks and naming names — Imran Khan is as safe as Pakistan’s nukes. Imran Khan knows this and is milking it — civilian supremacy on DG ISI, Usman Buzdar, absolutely not to the US — being a few cases that make the point.

Imran’s game makes sense because Maryam eliminates alternatives to him, but what in the world is Maryam up to? “Shehbaz Sharif is also going to become Prime Minister one day,” said Nawaz Sharif many times in public, with his smiling brother sitting beside him. But Maryam wants her inheritance while her father and uncle are still alive. How do you elevate yourself within a party, when your uncle is the leader of the opposition and dad is the leader of the party? You take direct shots at the Prime Minister and become the leader of the opposition in the hearts of the public. So what if you don’t have governance experience and haven’t won an election in your life? You have courage.

This is a family inheritance dispute at its core. It’s unfortunate that civilian supremacy — a noble principle — is the political football being abused to settle this feudal family feud. I’m not arguing Imran Khan and Maryam Nawaz have some sort of political understanding but that they understand how they are each other’s best foil and fuel to defy the laws of political gravity. This prism allows us to understand Pakistani politics through a different analytical lens than the mainstream media narrative and enables us to imagine a more predictable range of outcomes.

First, Imran Khan will complete his term because Maryam is unlikely to tamp down her rhetoric. Why won’t Maryam ramp down her rhetoric? Because it could bring Shehbaz Sharif to power in the deal of a century and would mean risking her prized inheritance i.e. the party may move down a different bloodline i.e. to Shehbaz’s son. Second, this means the boys will be grooming options other than these two; and TLP is a likely candidate, with PPP a close second. Hence the government making it clear that they wanted to crush TLP and the boys making clear that they were against the use of violence. But the TLP is unlikely to be ready by 2023 (not a good look with the Talibs next door) and unpopular PPP is at best an interim government.

So this brings us to the most spicy conclusion of this analytical framework. Only two men can become Prime Minister after the 2023 elections: Imran Khan or Shehbaz Sharif. All other things constant, which means Imran is still the favourite because of Maryam. But here’s the kicker: the outcome of the 2023 elections doesn’t pivot through Rawalpindi as much as it does through Rawind or London to be more precise. And that makes Nawaz the ultimate selector.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2021.

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