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April 16, 2018

Cat with nine lives


April 16, 2018

Seemingly, Nawaz Sharif is done and dusted. He has been squeezed out of electoral political existence on account of the detailed judicial verdict that has held his disqualification to hold public and political office to be valid for life – or at least as long as this declaration by the SC bench holds the field and is not reviewed and overridden by another verdict in the future. After being chucked out of the office of the PM and then deprived of the possibility of leading his party, Nawaz Sharif now has lost the chance to represent his constituency again.

However, beyond this personal end-of-the-line situation for him, the jury is still out on whether he is a spent political force. In fact, the ground reality as it exists today shows him to be a far weightier political actor after facing triple disqualifications than he was when in the office ruling Islamabad. He can still influence in a significant way the future course of national politics and how the national political system in this country (which we for the sake of keeping appearances and sounding politically correct continue to call democratic) evolves in the years ahead.

Part of the reason he enjoys this odd status of being a legal alien in electoral politics but in command of its dynamics is because so much negative energy of his opponents has been centred upon this one individual. The entire effort to dislodge him from the position of strength has turned national politics into a Nawaz Show. Imran Khan’s energies have been focused on piling him down. He has been the sole object of Imran Khan’s derision and the centrepiece of the PTI’s political strategy to come to power. No different for the PPP, whose leadership too has been obsessed with Nawaz Sharif and his politics.

The judiciary’s activism also seems to have spent more time on Nawaz-related matters than anything else, particularly so since the Panama verdict. Suo motus and observations, headlines and news, chatter and discussions – almost all matters of legal debate somehow or the other are attached to the Sharif family, more precisely Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. Even the state of civil-military ties are assessed in the same framework of one individual.

This is hardly a statement about the growing ‘irrelevance’ of Nawaz Sharif to the national political scene. Spent political forces don’t take up ninth-tenth of national discourse. Those who have faded and fainted seldom find a mention in any framework of the present.

We have recent examples that prove the obvious. Altaf Hussain is not heard of any longer. Even the leadership of the PML-Q, despite its physical presence in Punjab, has seen itself being sidelined and has, therefore, gone absent without being missed in any significant way. Personalities like ex-CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry and the absconding General (r) Pervez Musharraf fall in the same category – once critical factors in national politics tossed to the margins by the forces of change and circumstances.

In case of Nawaz Sharif, the ultimate humiliation that any politician can face – that of anonymity and insignificance – has not visited him. He remains the news-maker because he retains the potential of being a politics-shaper. There is something Newtonian about his present political status in which every action taken against him has produced an opposite and equal reaction: that of making him more relevant and turning him into a greater challenge to tackle.

That would not have been the case if it weren’t for his party’s presence in Punjab and the fact that he has two types of numbers with him: One, the numbers of members of the federal and Punjab governments – MNAs, senators, MPs who continue to operate within the framework of the party’s policy defined by him; and two, the number of voters: those who willingly and out of choice vote for him, vote in his name or for those who associate themselves with what he stands for.

His party has to implode and break down into half a dozen groups for the first type of numbers-advantage to be neutralised. The process of defections and central leadership leaving the party to form its own group has not really come about. Even if the PML-N becomes a party commanded by Shahbaz Sharif (PML-S), Nawaz Sharif remains the magnet holding all parts together. Contrary to the expectation that the arrival of Shahbaz Sharif (which has happened already) means the departure of Nawaz Sharif from the centre of the stage, the reverse has happened. Shahbaz Sharif is ever more dependent on his elder brother for support and political credibility. It is Maryam Nawaz who is pulling crowds. not Hamza Shahbaz. It is Nawaz Sharif who is keeping an alliance with the Baloch and Pashtun leaders, along with part of the religious right, not Shahbaz Sharif.

This situation will only change for the party if Shahbaz Sharif jumps the Nawaz Sharif ship, causing a family split and the end of the nucleus around which the N-League’s politics is built. But even then there is no guarantee that Nawaz will be the loser. What is sure is that Shahbaz Sharif will flounder and fall since his entire political career is cast in the shadow of his elder brother, and he, despite his many administrative and development achievements, has not really cut it at the national level.

The second numbers-advantage Nawaz Sharif has, that of electoral votes, is an even tougher nut to crack. Even if defections create the impression of the party getting reduced in size, there is no easy answer to the capacity of the party to get votes against its opponents. The last election saw the N-League bag 14.8 million votes against the PTI’s 17.5 million and the PPP’s 6.8 million. Despite the see-saw of fortunes, almost all the by-polls of the last few years endorse the fact that the N-League gets votes more than its nearest opponents.

Even if the next election sees a remarkable decline in the number of seats granted to the N-League (most assessments say that the party will now not get more than 25 seats), the total number of votes polled for the party will remain a headache. Seats get you power; votes polled suggest popularity and the strength of the vote bank. It will be a strange situation if the N-League loses the bid for power in the next polls because of reduced seats but retains its vote bank.

This would mean that Nawaz Sharif, despite being pulled down, retains the potential to stage a comeback. For him to become irrelevant on a long-term basis, he has to lose his vote bank. But how does anyone cause a leader to lose his vote bank of 14.8 million when even half of it is enough to be a genuine political factor to reckon with? There is no answer to this question; most certainly none is available in the legal sense. So Nawaz remains relevant.

Even if Nawaz is jailed he can and will influence the nature and direction of national politics. He has his allies in Balochistan and he has put forward his case rather forcefully – helped in no small measure by his startling and rather mysterious marginalisation. He is a cat with nine political lives, and continues to cling, claw back and fight it out.

If Nawaz Sharif had been able to complete five years of rule, his third term would have been the surest path to irrelevance. The abysmal rate at which he was going in office would have ensured that he and his party were punched down by popular public anger, harnessed by an organised and popular opposition. But the hasty humiliation heaped on him has made a complete waste of that opportunity. This has happened before, when Musharraf threw him out. There is no genius at work here for us to marvel at. A perfectly solvable political problem has now turned into a nightmare for both his opponents and the country. Consequently, our politics is in for yet greater turbulence.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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