The judgment is finally in. Nawaz Sharif would serve a decade in jail and his daughter, Maryam would spend seven years for their sentences would run concurrently. Through 174 pages, the judge has said something that many senior servants of the state were saying for weeks now. The judge, however, had to fulfill all legal formalities. That he did. The timing of the decision is curious nonetheless.
Going beyond the obvious, July 6 would now possibly be reserved in Pakistan’s political and judicial history as another remarkable day. For Sharif’s followers, it may become a monumental day of remembrance just like the followers of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto remember July 5. Both followers feel aggrieved and shortchanged by the country’s courts. There is one massive difference though. Bhutto was hanged because of the court decision. Sharif has been handed a cause to fight on. He thinks he has been here before and knows whom is he fighting against. The billion-dollar question remains if he is equipped well to carry on fighting.
Pakistan is ready for elections. That means a chance for the electorate to elect those who are not already “selected” to be in the next national or provincial parliaments. Trust in democracy is slipping. Not because it has not delivered for the people or the country. But because it is judged too harshly by those who cannot be part of the electoral process due to constitutional constraints. They, however, continue to ensure the course remains jumpy.
The most important element of the judicial process so far is not the judgment handed down to elder Sharif, his daughter and the son-in-law yesterday. They can go on fighting the process through appeals, bails and jails. The bigger question is the fate of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The judgment has effectively eliminated the House of Nawaz for now thereby handing over the party to the House of Shahbaz. Can Sharif the Younger take the party across the river on fire?
On July 25, Shahbaz would be heading the party for the first time into an election when state organs would not be with him. He might not be the actual persona non grata but would carry the baton on behalf of his elder brother – the man many believe is ousted through a plan. Known as a good administrator, the younger Sharif is reminded of the challenge through en masse departure of party parliamentarians who defected after Nawaz spoke about “controversial” issues. They immediately joined the opposing camp of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or preferred to ditch the government chariot for a “Jeep” - for the ride ahead could be rough.
In fact, many argue that state organs are actually pitched against the PML-N. Nawaz Sharif and his companions are wary of naming the antagonists. So speculating about them could be a slippery slope. A clear message has also been conveyed to the bureaucracy – predominantly Punjabi officers who have benefitted from the Sharifs uninterrupted rule in the province – through the arrest, investigation and temporary incarceration of senior bureaucrats, about which way the wind is blowing. Secretaries of the government of Pakistan have hardly been this sheepish while commenting on the present political situation. They only express fears about the future.
It is universally known who wore the pants in the PML-N. Speaking from the Park Lane flats hours after the judgment was out, Nawaz Sharif spoke about his intention to return home to continue his “struggle till the people of Pakistan are freed of the slavery imposed on them by some generals and judges.” It is a potent statement that remains devoid of a timeframe of his return. If Nawaz or Maryam do not return home before elections to underpin party effort, the PML-N goose seems pretty much cooked. How it is served depends how well or worse Shahbaz runs the campaign.
Those seeking to write off Nawaz must have worked out the impact if he returned. They would pray his wife’s condition kept him in London till 25th. Free or fettered, he remains a potent challenge. The amount of “planning” to oust him from politics proves how big a challenge he had become. Him gone for now speaks volumes about the challenge the young Sharif finds himself in. Election results in Punjab would write the fate of Sharifs, their progeny and their party. They would soon know if their work is trusted more by the people of the province or their rhetoric.
The capital grapevine predicts a PTI-led Centre. Numbers are thrown left, right and centre to make a point. Those boasting of insider information claim PML-N would be bulldozed, PPP would be sidelined, and Jeep-riders would join the winning side. They may have a point. But who would run Punjab? Will the Sharifs be decimated to a point where they lose all 300 seats they won the last time? Will those who benefitted from the Sharifs largess for decades abandon their Lexus Cygnus for a Jeep or take a U-turn once their wins are announced and go back to base?
Ideally, Shahbaz would like Nawaz or Maryam back home at least ten days before the polls. His sons are now relieved of doing duties for their cousin since she herself is out of the electoral game. Covering the province on their own and selling development stories might not deliver the goods. The narrative demanding “respect for vote” that Nawaz Sharif introduced in his public gatherings could fizzle out if advocated by Shahbaz and sons. Shahbaz always wanted his brother to tread carefully lest he is challenged by more powerful elements than politicians.
Nawaz had other ideas. He may come across feeble on personal front these days due to his wife’s critical medical condition but he looks more defiant and resolute in his political demeanour. He thinks he is on a mission that he could deliver with the help from his committed confidants. Problems after this judgment is that he is stuck in London with no clear return date and he can hardly afford to send his daughter alone to back his uncle’s campaign.
Many wrote many months ago that the party is over for Sharifs. They were spot on from their own understanding of Pakistani politics and on the basis of information that is passed on to them through myriad sources. But what if Nawaz Sharif still wants to party on? What if he is not ready for early retirement without fringe benefits? A lot depends on his younger brother’s ability and capability to contain the damage already done from within and without. What is noticeable, however, is that the core team of Nawaz Sharif has been effectively taken care off too. It remains to be seen what exactly could be delivered by those who are now close to Shahbaz and have been sympathetic to his political guiding principle – don’t lock horns with a stronger combatant on slippery ground.