‘London Plan’ in Pakistan politics

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By Manzoor Ahmed

There is something magical about London that attracts Pakistani politicians to the city. Many of them have residences in London and others use London to flee persecution in Pakistan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is no exception to this rule. Nawaz Sharif is today back in Pakistan as part of the so-called London plan, hatched out by the family and senior members of the Pakistan Muslim League (N). The message emanating from London was that the ‘PML minus Nawaz’ could not be thought of or imagined.
The present requirement for Nawaz Sharif to travel to London is the presence of his wife Kulsoom Nawaz who requires specialised medical treatment. But the London Plan has little to do with this, but relates to Nawaz returning to Pakistan to face the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Court to hear charges framed against him in the panama papers case. As per this new strategy adopted by the PML (N), Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother will head the party in the run-up to next year’s elections. This of course means that Maryam, Nawaz’s daughter will not get the expected kick up which was anticipated after she successfully spearheaded the NA-120 Lahore bye-election.

LONDON: Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with his brother Shahbaz Sharif, Ishaq Dar and Dr. Abdul Malik coming out from his residence in Park Lane, central London. (File picture)

Essentially, what got the PML (N) pack together in London was the bailable arrest warrant issued to Nawaz Sharif and his sons for failing to appear before the NAB court. There is also another equally important reason for the meeting of minds in London and this is the brewing revolt within the party. This is not the first time or even the last time when Nawaz Sharif has called members of the Pak cabinet, including the incumbent Prime Minister. What perhaps makes it different this time is that the future of the PML (N) was discussed at length and it was decided that there could be no “PML minus N”.
Significantly, it was decided, perhaps with some reluctance shown by Nawaz Sharif that the party would not adopt a policy of confrontation with the establishment and most likely, Shahbaz will act as the intermediary between the Army and PML (N). That said it remains to be seen if the establishment bites and will take up the PML (N) seriously. So Nawaz returns to Pakistan and begins the campaign for the party. This aspect of the plan is good for the party as it seemingly strengthens the hands of Nawaz Sharif and will reduce the voices of dissidence that are growing in the PML (N). The success of this plan depends on Nawaz being let off by the NAB Court and shows that the party is still finding it difficult to see a road ahead without Nawaz in the driving seat. The PML (N) is currently divided into camps one that support Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz and another one that supports daughter Maryam. In public, Shahbaz has kept a low profile while Maryam has been the public articulation, always by her father’s side and even tweeting and asking for support. However, it was well known in party circles even prior to the London Plan that Shahbaz could fill the shoes of his brother as Prime Minister, if the party managed to win the general elections in 2018. The key for the PML (N) is really the Punjab which is their social and industrial base. The question that is of immediate relevance is what happens to the PML (N) if Nawaz is indicted and sent to jail? As of now, Nawaz is in charge of both the party and the government by proxy. This would immediately change if he is sent to jail.
The meeting in London barred Maryam Nawaz from issuing policy statements. This was to counter her growing public profile and more importantly, to stem her controversial remarks which have contributed to the widening gulf within the family and have also antagonised some senior PML (N) members. Maryam in a recent interview to the New York Times declared that the Sharif family had long decided the leadership role of the party was meant for her. This set the cat among the pigeons and there were howls of protests within the party. However, Maryam has clearly built her support base among the youth in the party who are more willing to take risks. This is particularly so, after Maryam’s successful campaigning for the NA-120 bye-election in Lahore which saw her ailing mother win, albeit but with a reduced margin. It is likely that Maryam intends to stand in next year’s elections from Lahore. Again like her father, her political future is linked to the outcome of the hearing in the corruption case in the panama papers case in the NAB Court. It is not only those within the family who are at loggerheads, but there are also sections outside who have expressed their displeasure with the continuance of Nawaz Sharif as party head. Former interior minister Nisar Ali Khan’s latest statement lamenting that the PML (N) has been turned into a party to serve the interests of its leader is a direct attack on Nawaz Sharif. Nisar Khan’s warning that Pakistan is facing a crisis even worse than in 1970, when the country lost its Eastern wing, has a great deal of import. Chaudhury Nisar has also pointed fingers at the party leadership for having targeted the military. For a person with close links to the military establishment, Nisar could well be the spoiler in the PML (N).
This is not the first and the last London Plan. The last time around in 2014, Imran Khan was supposed to have held a meeting with the Army in London and prepared the road map for his famous version of the Long March in Islamabad. Even further back in time, during the second year of the Bhutto government there were reports of a London Plan.
This version of the Plan was to strengthen the hold of the PPP on Balochistan. The plot supposedly unveiled was that of a proposal to declare an independent Balochistan. Clearly, the aim of the then government was to malign Pakhtoon leader Wali Khan and his National Awami Party (NAP).
Where did London come into this picture? In September 1972, Maulana Kausar Niazi, the Information Minister and a close confidant of Bhutto alleged that the NAP chief Wali Khan and his colleagues had hatched a conspiracy to break Pakistan into semi-independent units. He alleged that this occurred when Wali Khan visited London for eye treatment! So much for conspiracies and of all the places emanating from London!
The Chief Minister of Balochistan Attaullah Mengal and Balochistan Finance Minister Ahmad Nawaz Bugti were supposed to have met Bangladesh Prime Minister Shaikh Mujibur Rahman in London and discussed the plan. The plan was a well-conceived plot to slander the NAP leadership and its partner JUI. This was certainly achieved.
In all these London Plans, the crucial question that arose was who benefitted the most and how? In the current London Plan, the temporary gain is for Nawaz Sharif. But this could be only a momentary gain. In the long-term the London Plan hatched by the Pak military to unseat Nawaz Sharif may well succeed. That could then turn the electoral fortunes of the PML (N) in the next year’s general elections.

(The author is geo-political analyst. The contents of the article are his own views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)