Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s chequered political career may have entered a new phase. His third term is beset by the same old challenges usually presented by Pakistan’s political landscape. A resurgent military ostensibly calling the shots, enduring turbulence in the neighbourhood and decreased negotiating space for policymaking to improve the economy. Unlike his past two terms, Nawaz Sharif has not taken on the military power. Instead, adopting a sobered version of his past self, he has chosen to ‘work’ with the permanent establishment to ensure that a systemic breakdown is avoided. That moment came last year during the street protests, but he survived, in part due to the military’s resolve not to intervene directly.

Despite these protests and lack of tangible results on many fronts, the political base of the PML-N seems to be intact. The recent two phases of local government election and barring the Lahore by-election where the opposition PTI almost won, the PML-N seems to be firmly saddled in Punjab. This is one of the flashpoints as the military’s support base is also located largely in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif’s brand of politics — of asserting civilian power, trading with India, etc. — therefore comes into conflict with the ideological framework of a security state.

Earlier this month, the prime minister said that the nation’s future lies in a “democratic and liberal” Pakistan. He also emphasised the importance of a thriving private sector. Perhaps, the use of ‘liberal’ was a reference to economic liberalism. However, for the country’s chief executive to make such a statement is noteworthy. Nawaz Sharif also spoke about making Pakistan an “educated, progressive, forward looking and an enterprising nation”. He was immediately berated by religious leaders for negating the ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

A week later, the prime minister also attended a Diwali function where he interacted with the Hindu community and expressed his desire to participate in Holi festivities. His unusual (by Pakistani standards) remarks included: “Pakistan is a country for all and I am the prime minister of all Pakistanis, no matter what religion, creed or caste they belong to.” While such a gesture may come across as tokenism, it makes a point of departure in a country where minorities have been at the receiving end of the acts of militant groups and hate mobs.

The term ‘liberal’ has become an abuse word. Opinion-makers have crafted egregiously incorrect terms, such as ‘liberal fascists’ and ‘liberal extremists’ to bolster the jihad project of the 1980s onwards. Imran Khan, one of Pakistan’s most popular leaders, went even further declaring liberals “scum” and the leaders of his current partner — the Jamaat-e-Islami — have been advising liberals to get registered as a minority and leave the country.

This narrative continues to inform the public mind. Liberals — often ‘guilty’ of highlighting human rights abuses — are viewed as ‘paid’, working on a ‘Western agenda’ or bringing a bad name to Pakistan. In recent months, two intriguing commentaries peddled the same old line. A recent article authored by a senior journalist equated “pseudo liberals” as “bitterly opposed to the Pakistan Armed Forces”, as they want to “make frontiers between Pakistan and India irrelevant”. The commentary equated liberals to the minority of religious extremists, completely overlooking the threat and use of violence by the latter. Earlier, another commentator in a leading English daily called extremist outfits “pragmatic” forces, who consider “liberals” as a “non-religious body and against the ideological identity of the state”.

Another senior journalist in his column for a leading Urdu paper accused the prime minister of betraying his mandate to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state. He praised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for having turned the Constitution ‘Islamic’ while being secular in his personal life. Nawaz Sharif, despite his strong religious credentials, was taking Pakistan in the wrong direction, complained the columnist.

The prime minister needs to do a bit more than just issue feel-good statements. While the ideological orientation and the support base in middle class, conservative sections of Punjab’s electorate (some of whom support and fund extremist networks) may not allow for radical shifts his party’s views, Nawaz Sharif’s leadership and positions potentially could change some of the prevalent attitudes, especially towards religious minorities. The PML-N would need to reconsider its localised electoral alliances with sectarian militias. Perhaps, the ongoing military operations have opened up some space for the party to re-evaluate its moorings. That should be the next logical step for the Sharif brothers to give much-needed support to the persecuted Shia Muslims in the country and also take stock of ongoing persecution of Ahmadis.

Of late, media reports have also focused on the increasing role of the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz. During his recent trip to Washington, Maryam Nawaz made public appearances and highlighted how her party had struggled for democracy. Dynastic politics is old-fashioned and has to go away. But it is not disappearing anytime soon. Women from the Sharif family have traditionally not been in the public eye. Maryam Nawaz’s increasing public role within a male-dominated party is another sign of the times and more so of a changing PML-N as it shifts towards the centre on the political spectrum.

It may be too early to predict the future course of Nawaz Sharif and his party. It is also true that all mainstream parties with minor variations have nothing radically different to offer to the electorate. In fact, their performance across the board does not inspire confidence of large segments of the population, especially the youth, who clamour for opportunities, jobs, openness and more responsive institutions. One of the reasons for the recent resurgence of the military is the flawed style[s] of governing Pakistan at both the federal and provincial levels. There is much that the PML-N and other mainstream parties have to undertake to win both public legitimacy and powers from the security establishment.

The PML-N’s shift, howsoever minor or rhetorical it might be, is a welcome development. From being the protege of the military during the 1980s and the leader of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in the 1990s, Nawaz Sharif today has found his orbit. He may not have the requisite space to normalise relations with India and drive the security policy nor the best of teams in his kitchen cabinet, but he seems far more self-assured than he has ever been.