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February 22, 2018

Nawaz will continue to call the shots

ISLAMABAD: Former premier Nawaz Sharif may be out legally and politically but his party, PML-N, in essence revolves and would continue to revolve around him till he fights on.

This is a hard political reality and his friends, foes and political competitors feel compelled to accept it – whether they like it or not. Especially when Sharifs’ political narrative is selling like anything amongst his voters, supporters and also some fence sitters. The decision by the top court to disqualify him from holding top party office is a major legal and moral roadblock for the future parliamentary ambitions of the former premier.

At the same time, it may surprisingly provide more political impetus to the PML-N and Sharif in the larger political context. Especially when his narrative of being treated unfairly by powerful state institutions is gaining ground to the disappointment of his political rivals.

Now, Sharif cannot become premier for may be some months or years to come, yet to be stipulated by top court of the land. Still, he is the kingmaker, centre of gravity in the ruling party, undisputed leader. President or not, his words and decisions carry, and would continue to carry most weight. Till he is there in the political arena, no one can deny his political grip on the party and in the larger political arena.

Personally, he and the members of his family including his political heir Maryam Nawaz, may enter unchartered water in the wake of Panama case verdict expected that his narrative thrives and he is ready to face political and physical hardship -- if he is jailed in the days to come.

Immediately after the Supreme Court Panama case decision last year, Sharif’s two main rivals – Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari – had thought that the spiral effect of the decision would render Nawaz Sharif politically redundant within days and weeks.

That didn’t not happen. G T Road march by the former premier in August last, followed by his well-attended public meetings in the Punjab and KP, on top opposition’s dismal show in Lahore this January, said it all. Now leading opposition lights, including Imran Khan, are trying to dismiss Sharif’s rejuvenated support as a temporary phenomenon. In essence, “mujhe kion nikala (why I was disqualified)” could still prove a short lived phenomenon. But the success of the narrative can largely be attributed to the absence of a politically potent counter narrative by the mainstream opposition parties. On their part, they tried in vain to sell and oversell the Panama verdict and alleged corruption card since June 2016. But the only buyers were their likeminded segments of society, voters and supporters. Subdued PML-N supporters, largely in low morale throughout year 2017, have lately come out of their political hibernation, and thronged the party public meetings. Some fence sitters have also joined largely due to unimpressive opposition narrative that lacked substance, and was, and still is full of empty rhetoric. That compelled the alienated Sharif supporters, and other segments of society to buy the victim card played effectively by the former premier.

Adversaries had naively thought he would become politically redundant after disqualification on July 28, 2017, but surprisingly he has been able to win back support of voters and supporters ever since.

From now on, he cannot hold top party office, but politically he would remain the one and only top party leader. Likewise, he rules the central government by default even though Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is the sitting premier. Now the ruling PML-N would have to bring someone else to head the party, may be Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab Chief Minister, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz or some loyalist. But anyone who heads the ruling party, including Shahbaz Sharif, his all-time number two, would look up towards Nawaz Sharif for critical decision making, final words.

This is the second time Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified as party head. First after the 1999 Musharraf-led coup when under the Political Parties’ Act he was barred from holding top party office. But even when, he was in exile in Saudi Arabia and then in London, it was he who controlled the party, politically and administratively.