Nawaz Sharif is facing his ultimate moment of truth – a do-or-die situation, of the sort that he has never witnessed in his tumultuous career. But he is not the only one. His brother and now the Pakistan Muslim League party chief, Shahbaz Sharif, too is gripped by this crisis that can undo his political ambitions for good and destroy his carefully cultivated image of an alternative to Nawaz Sharif. The party and the election campaign of hundreds of provincial and National Assembly seats are also at stake. So are the interests of the millions of voters who associate themselves with the League.
It is reasonable to say that this grim situation centres on the person of Nawaz Sharif and to a lesser degree his daughter, Maryam Nawaz. And if those close to Shahbaz Sharif are to be believed, the mess is because of Nawaz and Nawaz alone. If he had been more tactful and had taken the alleged deal of absenting himself from the political scene for some time, say two years, the League’s travails would have been far less than what they are now and their election campaign too would be thriving.
That’s one way to look at it and it won’t be inaccurate either. However, the sweet irony is that after his conviction by the Accountability Court in one of the most bizarre and legally astounding cases in recent history, which also handed punishments to his daughter and son-in-law, Nawaz Sharif also retains the only key that the Sharif family and the League now have to struggle through the present quagmire. It is not a great key, certainly not a master key, but the only one that is handy.
The League has entered a crucial phase where its electoral politics hinge critically on its political stand on the issue of the ongoing accountability process of Nawaz Sharif and his family. The double-speak that the party leadership has been indulging in regarding the cases is no longer the medium through which it can engage with its voters and the local leadership, which remains confused and divided. Nawaz Sharif’s press conference in London after his conviction did create clarity. But that clarity did not reach the bottom end of party workers. The Shahbaz Sharif factor filtered the message out and reintroduced the same element of caution that has been the hallmark of his politics most of his life, and particularly so ever since the Panama scandal broke out.
Hearing Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif at the same time in the past week has been like listening to two totally different beats, badly out of sync with each other. Nawaz mentions conspiracies while Shahbaz speaks of the need to avert conflict. Nawaz names names; Shahbaz wants to bow his head before the courts, and trusts rule of law. Nawaz bewails and bemoans stolen mandates while Shahbaz puts total premium on the process even as he articulates daily doubts about its fairness. Nawaz wants to settle core issues like civil-military ties now while Shahbaz does not even want to mention them in speeches, much less present a formula to address the question. Nawaz pulls back no punches while Shahbaz goes on and on without saying anything of significance on the most important challenges facing the older Sharif and the League. Nawaz says polls results have already been decided against the Muslim League while Shahbaz still believes that he can pull off a victory on the back of his rhetoric about his development schemes and the claim that he has delivered the goods in Punjab better than the PTI did in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
These are wide differences and speak not just of different types of personalities but of different levels of interests as well. Nawaz Sharif has been in power at the centre three times and has seen the corridors that Shahbaz has visited only as a junior commander to his brother. Moreover, the family business has so evolved that the new-generation financial interests of the two brothers are located separately: Hasan and Hussain abroad; Hamza and Salman mostly in Pakistan. This creates a totally divergent set of personal interests and the pulls from the progeny (at least in case of Shahbaz) makes the parents look at different things when dealing with the political crises hurting their power base.
Seen in this context, it makes sense why one brother is seen going in one direction and the other in the opposite. But now the situation has changed so radically that this understandable clash of worldviews has become unsustainable.
As the conflict between Nawaz Sharif and those he believes are behind his conviction spirals to the next level, the prospects of a middle path – of the reconciliation that Shahbaz Sharif has been banking on for so long – becomes dimmer, to the extent of becoming an illusion. The idea that the July 25 goalpost can be crossed by simply skirting around the issues that have been thrown up by the NAB court verdict is no longer implementable as events other than elections have now come to dominate the stage.
The most immediate of these issues is the return of Nawaz Sharif and how the party organisation manages this return. Given the ground situation, it is difficult to imagine that this would be a smooth affair. NAB has already shown its intent to nab the older Sharif and his daughter and haul them both to the prison cell – with the PTI cheering them all the way. If the League cadres do not show up in good numbers and create the kind of environment in which the arrests are made to look like a war of sorts then the message that would go out won’t sync with the narrative of defiance that the older Sharif has been trying to build.
However, chaos and mayhem upon Nawaz Sharif’s arrival (maybe along with his daughter) could also spin out of control. It could lead to violence and a widening of the conflict, causing either a postponement of the polls or a much more destructive outcome, a derailment of fig-leaf-democracy. How the two brothers and their party balance this act of resisting without toppling the boat they are riding in is an acute dilemma. But stepping back from the brink in a manner that would look like a retreat or a stark compromise could also inflict deep wounds upon the party’s fortunes. Which way it will go will be decided by Nawaz Sharif’s decisions.
Also Nawaz Sharif in jail can cut both ways for the party: his arrest can make party voters aggressive and give them an incentive to show a stronger than usual showing on polling day; conversely, if imprisonment is to happen without a strong resistance it can depress the voter, further spreading the tale far and wide that the Sharif story in the country is over.
Be that as it may, what is certain is that with the NAB verdict out and Nawaz Sharif bent upon returning, the time for two narratives from the Pakistan Muslim League is over. Also over is the pretence that there is still room for reconciliation and compromise. Nawaz is not budging. Neither are the opposing forces. On the eve of the national election, an epic political battle is on the horizon – and Nawaz Sharif is at the centre of it. His conduct and actions and the moves from the other side are pushing a long-simmering conflict towards culmination point. The country, which has so many fronts to tackle, is unfortunately again embattled within. What a waste. What a sorry sight.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.