One Sharif has replaced another Sharif as head of the PML-N. Shahbaz Sharif is now in the saddle and Nawaz Sharif seems to have finally bowed out. But has he?
As things stand, it seems next to impossible to separate PML-N from Nawaz Sharif. “N” in the party’s nomenclature stands for Nawaz Sharif. Though Shahbaz is officially the party chief, Nawaz Sharif is now life-long quaid, a position nobody can snatch from him.
Since Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court, finding a replacement has been a big challenge for the party. There have been rumours of fissures within the family and the party regarding who will succeed Nawaz Sharif as party head. To start with, it was Kulsoom Nawaz whose name figured prominently as the likely successor to the ousted prime minister. But, lately, it is Maryam Nawaz who has hogged the media limelight as her father’s likely successor, especially in view of the fact that she has been following Nawaz Sharif like a shadow and criss-crossing the country to address crowds of jubilant party men. The studied absence of Shahbaz Sharif from the public meeting addressed by the Nawaz-Maryam duo has reinforced the perception.
But one thing that went against Maryam being catapulted to the top position was the opposition from key figures like Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and other dissident leaders who on more than one occasion announced their intention to leave the party in case Maryam was anointed as the party chief. Although for the time being the issue of party succession seems to have been amicably solved, tensions continue to simmer beneath the surface regarding the party leadership in the Punjab. Hamza Shahbaz is a strong claimant but the shadow of Maryam Nawaz also looms large.
It will be interesting to watch which direction the party takes now that Shahbaz Sharif is the head. Nawaz Sharif is no longer in the saddle, but will he stop dictating party policy? It is no secret that the two brothers have sharply contrasting ideas on how to meet the challenges hurled by the new turn of events in national affairs. While Nawaz Sharif has opted for confrontational politics, Shahbaz Sharif is for a more pragmatic approach and against taking on the state organs.
The million dollar question is: Which narrative will ultimately prevail in the party? The one aggressively promoted by Nawaz Sharif or a new moderate one that advocates not unnecessarily offend the powers-that-be? Despite being disqualified twice, Nawaz Sharif seems to be in no mood to back down from the high horse he has been riding. Maryam Nawaz with her vitriolic outpourings against the judiciary is adding fuel to the fire.
If given a free hand, Shahbaz Sharif will like to seek a deal with the Establishment. But will Nawaz Sharif allow him the leeway? If Shahbaz, somehow, manages to push ahead with his reconciliation politics, it will greatly benefit the PML-N. Those in the party sitting on the fence will welcome the opportunity to remain associated with the citadel of power. PML-N is not a party of ideologues. It brazenly pursues the politics of patronage and most of its supporters are there for the crumbs of power they receive for their loyalty to the Sharif family.
In the given situation marked by extreme polarization and open war declared by the Nawaz-Maryam duo, Shahbaz Sharif’s soft approach may be more acceptable to the party rank and file. But the final word rests with the Quaid for Life Nawaz Sharif. Either he allows the good cop Shahbaz Sharif to regroup and lead the party out of the present cul-de-sac, or he tries to ram his way through to the corridors of power.
In this connection it is pertinent to note here that the Sharif brothers have throughout worked in tandem. They complement each other and have proved themselves a winning combination. It is a relationship of mutual dependency. That, perhaps, explains their remaining together in the face of all odds. Nawaz Sharif operates at the macro level and is good at forming electoral alliances, while Shahbaz Sharif is a go-getter, a pushy administrator who delivers in the field. This complementarity has so far worked well but will it work in the present adverse conditions and a wide divergence of approach between the two?
There are some imponderables in the situation which may upset the new political strategy adopted by the PML-N. NAB has now sharpened its knives against bureaucrats involved in mega corruption scandals, specially the metro and orange trains and Ashiyana housing schemes. NAB has arrested Ahad Cheema and some other officials with strong ties to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. If they spill the beans, Shahbaz Sharif will be in real trouble. He will face corruption cases like Nawaz, and the House of Sharif will lose its grip on the situation.
In such an eventuality, the fragmentation of the PML-N and party members leaving a sinking ship will become a distinct possibility. Already about a dozen MPAs have left the party and more are preparing to follow suit. It may be a repeat of the early 2000s, when the PML-N could hardly win some 30-odd seats in the Provincial Assembly. The main problem facing the ruling party now is the group of party members who want to reconcile with the invisible forces and continue to engage in politics and remain in power. This group, mostly consisting of the members of the assembly, is of the view that if reconciliation will lead to a free and fair election for the PML-N, it is an option worth trying.