The next major challenge for the Sharifs is likely to come from within the incumbent coalition
ixteen years ago, I sat with Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in one of his family’s fabled Park Lane flats discussing the possibility of a live television interview for Geo News. Shahbaz Sharif sat in the room too. The brothers had recently arrived in Britain after a premature culmination of their exile to Saudi Arabia by the military dictator, Pervez Musharraf.
The conversation revolved around the questions provided on his request with a mutually agreed rider that he would not eschew questions that naturally sprouted from his answers. During the discussion, Nawaz said some of his answers could be too hot to handle for a young (four-year-old) news channel that was not viewed favourably by the military regime. “I have a lot to say about the army and the way generals derail civilian governments,” he said. I replied that he himself, rather than the broadcaster, would have to deal with the heat.
Shahbaz interjected at that moment and cautioned his elder brother against using the word “army” during the proposed interview. “What should I say then,” he asked. You could rather say that some ambitious (tale’ azma) generals hijack the country every now and then, Shahbaz suggested. Nawaz, I distinctly remember, didn’t like the suggestion or the interjection. “Who is behind these ambitious generals if not their institution,” Nawaz tested Shahbaz. He then suggested that the younger Sharif take a walk in Hyde Park. “Go get some fresh air.”
Nawaz may have blossomed in a dictator’s nursery but having paid through his nose he had learnt his political lessons. He may not have been a democrat at heart to start with but his attempts to assert civilian supremacy had cost him three governments. Nawaz was “given ample chances” to mend his ways but still chose to lock horns with the powerful, a retired three-star officer once told me. For that, he paid the ultimate price.
If it is accepted that the relationship between the patron and the protégé had soured during Nawaz’s first prime ministerial stint then it would follow that the institutional support in his colossal 1997 win must have been nominal. Matters slid south within months when Nawaz first forced Gen Jehangir Karamat out and then attempted to dislodge Gen Musharraf in 1999. Explaining Nawaz’s second ouster from power to me while the coup had just started taking shape, late Gen Hamid Gul said his piece in a sentence: “How could he be allowed to have a general for his lunch and one for his dinner.”
Sharifs were touted as the best possible team to deliver for the markets and commerce. They can’t afford to fail.
Stories about Nawaz Sharif’s exile to Saudi Arabia; end of his exile in 2006; his attempt to return to Pakistan in 2007; his second expulsion; his ultimate return; his success in the 2013 election; the Imran-Qadri march on Islamabad; the Panama-iqama commotion; the Sicilian mafia theatrics; his disqualification for life for politics; and his 2019 departure for London for medical treatment, abound and will be told for at least a generation.
But in 2023, the PML-N’s and Nawaz’s careers are at a very interesting intersection. A perfect storm is brewing on all sides. The establishment might have agreed to let the PML-N head a limping coalition government clubbed together by anti-Imran forces but will Nawaz Sharif be allowed to run for a fourth term? Highly unlikely.
For one thing, Nawaz needs to clear his name in courts of law. Will the adjudicators rethink earlier rulings? Only time will tell.
The PML-N is showing signs of fatigue. It is as if the party is fraying at the fringes. It had suffered a rupture when Sharifs were exiled in December 2000. Nawaz’s extended absence from Pakistan is testing the will and stamina of his close confidants who are finding it stressful to work with Shahbaz Sharif, who in turn is now regularly being criticised as a limp premier. “One can say PM in case of Shahbaz Sharif stands for project manager,” a party A-lister told me recently. If Nawaz chose to stay abroad for a few more months, he said, the party could be over.
Nawaz is now dispatching Maryam to Pakistan. She has an elevated position and could reignite Nawaz’s narrative, accusing Gen Bajwa, Gen Faiz Hameed and a few former judges of a conspiracy. But that is not what people want from the Sharifs now. Pressure is building for a credible performance on the economy front. Blame games could provide catharsis to a few mauled egos but they cannot fill hungry stomachs and light fuel-less stoves. Sharifs were touted as the best possible team to deliver for the markets and commerce. They can’t afford to fail.
While many watch how Rawalpindi reacts to the country’s perilous voyage into tumultuous waters, Sharifs’ major challenge will come from within the incumbent coalition. Both Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari might wish to see Nawaz stranded abroad, while the former enjoys his prime ministerial stint and the latter a trickle of electables from Balochistan and south Punjab into his party.
The latter part of 2023 will see the emergence of two new powerful teams; there will be a new chief justice of Pakistan and the recently installed army chief will have his picks in key places. The PML-N should not fool itself by expecting undue support from either. It needs to stand on its own feet.
Hostile media and social media warriors will be ready for another round of propaganda warfare. Pakistan in 2023 is the new Panem, poised for its own version of Hunger Games, ready for newer rounds of panem et circenses, set for fresher ruse de guerre. Is PML-N ready to ride a perfect storm?
The writer works for the Jang/ Geo Group. He tweets @aamirghauri