190809 Maryam Nawaz
Maryam Nawaz Image Credit: AP

“We cloak our cowardice with the ill-fitting garment of political correctness. To a coward, courage always looks like stupidity. Fortune favours the brave,” states Maryam Nawaz on her twitter handle. And she is proving to be an intrepid political leader who has challenged the powerful establishment in Pakistan.

Since her father Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power on charges of ‘not being honest’ in 2017, Maryam came on the forefront, fighting her father’s case. Due to her perseverance and bold stance, she is now being seen as the heir to her father’s political legacy.

Undoubtedly, Maryam is an emerging heart-throb of Pakistan, and her popularity is gaining momentum with every passing day. She is seen as the second most powerful woman leader in Pakistan after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in December 2007 during her election campaign.

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At the forefront

In the physical absence of her father Sharif and her jailed uncle Shahbaz Sharif, who is President of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Maryam is now leading the party from the front in the antigovernment campaign launched this month. From the very first antigovernment rally in Gujranwala early this month, Maryam sent out a strong political messages that she is no coward and cannot be intimidated in the absence of her father, uncle and other PML-N leaders who are either in jail or facing court cases, which she alleges are part of a political vendetta.

Maryam, who will turn 47 on October 28 this year, has emerged as a mature politician and is successfully spearheading the agitation campaign launched by the join opposition parties alliance called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). She has once again lit up the street politics in Pakistan in collaboration with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Chief of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F). But this time, Chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Prime Minister Imran Khan is on the receiving end.

Maryam, an astute political observer, jumped into political quagmire when she became in charge of her father’s successful political campaign in 2013, which helped him become Prime Minister of Pakistan for a historic third time. Till then, she was mostly confined to her personal life, having married a former captain in Pakistan Army, Safdar Awan, at the age of 19 in 1992. The couple have three children. She became a grandmother in 2018 after her daughter gave birth to a daughter.

Frank and outspoken

A foremost quality of Maryam which most PML-N hawks do not like is that she is bold and does not like to ‘negotiate issues’ in secret. She is a frank and believes in confronting the issues instead of finding back channels to seek their solutions. Maryam became more popular when she stood by her father and stared in the eyes of military established which Sharif believes dethroned him to bring Imran Khan to power.

Sharif’s defiant video speech during the antigovernment rally in Gujranwala shook the power corridors in Pakistan as he blatantly accused Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa for dethroning him and paving way for Khan to become Prime Minister. Political pundits were at a loss whether Maryam would be able to handle the backlash as her father literally shut the doors for political reconciliation with his speech.

But it was heartening to see that Maryam did not only call Imran Khan out but also questioned the role of other key players in what she called the ‘hybrid regime’. Perhaps the most honest statement in her recent press conference was her acknowledgement that it is not easy to resist undemocratic forces. She spoke about journalists, judges, politicians in Pakistan — all being put under pressure to compromise on principled positions.

If Maryam’s presence and fiery speech at the second opposition rally in Karachi is anything to go by, it is evident that Maryam will not relent. She looks determined to raise the political temperature with each passing day despite the fact that the attempt of intimidation by arresting her husband Safdar by the Karachi police from her hotel room soon after the protest rally.

Ideological commitment and resilience

The Pakistan Democratic Movement’s planned two-phased agenda of protests and rallies culminating in a long-march towards Islamabad will test this assumption as well as the PML-N’s political resolve and nerves. However Maryam has no prior experience of leading a resistance movement against a sitting government. Giving hard-hitting speeches and pulling large crowds in political rallies is one thing, but street agitation and protests involve a different level of ideological commitment and resilience from party workers and supporters. And Maryam, so far, has been impressive. Also, the public resentment regarding growing unemployment, rising inflation and poverty favours the PML-N to attract a positive public response to its antigovernment rallies.

In fact, this is the first time that a woman leader is taking a mainstream political party from Punjab into the realm of political resistance. Maryam is leading the PML-N at a make-or-break juncture of its political evolution. She is a charismatic leader, an eloquent speaker and a genuine crowd-puller, but it remains to be seen if she can keep the party intact in such trying circumstances. She represents the younger generation of PML-N leaders and vote bank.

Her political prominence in Pakistan can be measured by the fact that both the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the New York Times named her among the 100 most powerful women in the world in 2017. Though Maryam has never contested elections, most political analysts see her as the future prime minister of Pakistan. Maryam is now strengthening her position in the party by bringing in her team of loyalists. How she manages to hold sway in the weeks and months will decide her and her party’s political future.