Failure to get its Senate Chairman elected has come as a rude shock for the PML-N, probably its biggest loss since Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification last July. Since his ouster, the former Prime Minister gained immense popularity in the masses and won key by-elections due to his pro-democracy narrative. After a winning stride in popular politics, Nawaz Sharif lost at the hands of the establishment in the wheeling-dealing game of Senate elections. The hidden forces first manipulated the Balochistan assembly to overthrow the PML-N government, and then successfully tied rival PTI and PPP together to jointly nominate an independent candidate as the Senate Chairman. Initially, the PML-N played the game well by supporting Raza Rabbani’s candidature for the Chairman slot. By publicly nominating Rabbani, Nawaz Sharif put Zardari in a tight spot. If Zardari went with Rabbani, he would draw the establishment’s ire and fall back into the democratic camp. If he went against this nomination, he would expose himself as an establishment stooge. Zardari chose the latter. If this move by Zardari was destructive for democracy, the PML-N did not hold true to its anti-establishment narrative either. After considering people with strong democratic credentials like Pervez Rasheed and Hasil Bizenjo, Nawaz Sharif made the disappointing decision of nominating Raja Zafarul Haq as his candidate for Chairman. Although he might have taken this decision to protect his top horses for future battles after becoming aware of an imminent defeat, this nominating sends a clear message that Nawaz Sharif is still treading a cautious route and hoping to reconcile with the establishment. Such a perception is much more dangerous for Nawaz Sharif’s politics than a defeat in Senate elections. Ironically, Nawaz Sharif is at the same juncture of politics where Benazir Bhutto was in 1980s and 1990s. Benazir also thought it prudent to avoid direct confrontation with the military and focused her energies on Nawaz Sharif instead, who was an establishment proxy back then. After Nawaz Sharif’s fallout in late 1990s, the establishment adopted PML-N-Q as its new proxy, Imran Khan happily fell into the establishment’s camp a decade later, and now Zardari is firmly embedded in the military camp. Meanwhile, the judiciary has served as an unwavering ally of the establishment over all these years. The former Prime Minster should draw two important lessons from this. First, taking the reconciliatory route will not help if you are a popular politician. The military detests politicians who carry their own vote bank even if they show willingness to work with it. Nawaz Sharif has had first-hand experience with this during his tenure as the Prime Minister from 2013 to 2017. He was unceremoniously ousted on the flimsy excuse of iqama even after conceding foreign, economic, and internal security policies to the military. Second, targeting proxies will not help, as they are easily dispensable for the establishment. Judiciary, PTI, PPP, Tehreek Labbaik, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, etc. can easily be replaced by something new if these actors are weakened. In essence, Nawaz Sharif is wasting his and everyone’s time by targeting the judiciary while keeping mum on the military’s role behind the scenes. People already know who pulls the strings in the country’s power corridors, and it is high time that a national political leader take this discourse to the public. Nawaz Sharif’s current wave of popularity will only strengthen by openly defying the military establishment, and could probably save him from future upsets As the situation currently stands, Nawaz Sharif is left with only two stark options: take the fight to the generals, or back down from the contest for good. If he decides to take the conciliatory path, it would be a death knell for his politics, as the establishment will not stop until he is completely annihilated from politics and his party broken into multiple (manageable) factions. If Nawaz Sharif is serious about continuing with the offensive, however, it is about time that he explicitly and loudly calls out the role of military generals in manipulating the judiciary, media houses, and politics. People already know who pulls the strings in the country’s power corridors, and it is high time that a national political leader takes this discourse to the public. Nawaz Sharif’s current wave of popularity will only strengthen by openly defying the military establishment, and could probably save him from future upsets. This path is full of difficulties, but it is the only way forward. Nawaz Sharif should challenge the generals and their destructive policies that have held 200 million people hostage for decades. If he cannot find the courage to do so, then he should spare us all and revert to toady politics. People will not stand by him in his hour of need if he is not ready to fight and sacrifice for their rights, and any signs of reconciliation like the attempt to nominate Raja Zafarul Haq will not go down well with his supporters. Nawaz Shareef has the most to gain and the most lose in this contest, and it is up to him whichever path he chooses. The difficult path to greatness, or the easy path to oblivion. The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Cleveland State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His twitter handle is @RamblingSufi Published in Daily Times, March 14th 2018.