Au revoir Nawaz Sharif

February 25, 2024

A bruised and battered PML-N is poised to launch another political journey with a cunning companion. Bets are already on for an early shipwreck

Au revoir Nawaz Sharif


ost Pakistani politicians are not known to be reading animals or serious cinephiles. Still, many presume that their lives and labours, success and failures will be documented for posterity. Had Nawaz Sharif been a reading man he would have considered a few lines from Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man to be relevant to his situation. “I suddenly felt that it was all the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all: I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing.” Alternatively, he could have very well related to a sentence in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down; A Story of Modern War: “It can’t get much worse than this.”

For over three decades Nawaz Sharif and the faction he carved out of the Pakistan Muslim League’s corpus in the early 1990s remained synonymous. During these years, having to think of the leader and the party as separate entities was essentially unimaginable. Sharif’s political journey has been a tug of war between him and the country’s powerful generals, many of them elevated to the top offices by Sharif himself. His ousters from power and the country and his phantastic returns are worth a tome.

Au revoir Nawaz Sharif

In October, when Nawaz Sharif was returning to Pakistan from yet another exile, he may have thought that he was going to start another chapter of personal glory. He had already made history by becoming Pakistan’s prime minister on three occasions. After a while, all attempts to keep him out of politics proved burdensome and failed. A fourth term would have made it almost impossible for any other politician to match his record. It seems, that those wielding real power in Pakistan had other plans: let him in the country but keep him out of power.

If Islamabad’s grapevine is to be trusted, even for a passing joke, Nawaz Sharif was promised a return to his throne following judicial baptism. The Panama/ Iqama infamy, imprinted on the public psyche, needed to be washed away for Nawaz to have a real chance to beat a ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ challenger. But once his arch nemesis was confined to prison and the Pakistan Peoples Party largely restricted to Sindh, Sharif could see a straight path to power. An illusion, many would point out.

So, what exactly happened? How can one know for sure when gossip is gospel and fiction gallops like fact? Those who go around cantering in the capital claim that the Sharifs were originally “promised” around 120 National Assembly general seats – enough to form a government – and the support of a handful of smaller parties or regional allies. But, they say, the offer was tied to certain conditions. Sharif’s first choice was to be kept away from the country’s finances and the Punjab could not be handed over to a family member. Apparently, there were some reservations also about Sharif’s presumed pick for Balochistan. Such were the fantasies billowing through the chimneys of the twin cities’ guessing factories. Sharif, they say, refused to promise anything. How could he, he argued, give away something that he didn’t have. His lack of flexibility, say those claiming inside knowledge, cost his party around 20 NA seats.

Most independent observers, 24/7 commentators and hourly v-loggers remain perplexed about the reasons behind Sharif’s late and slow start to the crucial election campaign. “They hardly stepped out, as if fearing some necromancers in their traditional constituencies,” commented a critic. They either placed too much confidence in the potency of the presumed deal with the powers that be or realised the way the winds were shifting.

There are those who claim that the brothers were ‘overheard’ by the spooks having an argument about the special council created to attract foreign money to kick-start the sagging economy. A usually reliable source claimed that intelligence projections had always indicated that none of the parties would win 100 NA seats and that the PML-N was expected to “crawl” to 80. The “independents” were expected to win the most seats.

Pakistan’s political folklore suggests that ever since the coup in 1958, the country’s powerful establishment has always abhorred popular challengers. Its own favourites are pushed out of the arena as soon as they start questioning its right to lay down the rules. Nawaz Sharif was a marked man once he locked horns with the establishment during his first term as prime minister.

Until late Tuesday night, Nawaz Sharif was PML-N’s most potent card. On Wednesday morning, he was a passenger, forced out of the government bus. A new coalition has been cobbled together to steer the country out of the current morass. Nawaz was apparently aware of what was cooking. He made sure to protect the turf he could. His daughter Maryam Nawaz is billed to be the next chief minister of the Punjab. The National Assembly is required to meet on the 29th. Prized constitutional posts have been divided among two leading parties. For now, the PPP has refused to accept cabinet slots, but as a British prime minister, Harold Wilson, once said, a week is a long time in politics. There is a possibility also that a few more independents will ditch their ideological baggage to join either the PML-N or the PPP.

Nawaz was always aware of his brother’s aching desire to be the prime minister. His 16-months stint as head of the coalition administration was a downer. With many of PML-N stalwarts ousted from the arena, Shahbaz will find it hard to fill important cabinet slots. Conversely, he has the opportunity to build a cabinet excluding pro-Nawaz elements and take the country in another direction. His prime task will be keeping Zardari and son happy and willing to stay the course at the Centre. He will also have to keep an eye on Maryam, who may start throwing her weight around if a perception develops that he is favouring the establishment and the party’s political opponents. Many Nawaz loyalists will be at hand to help her if they felt that the party needed a stronger leadership in the Punjab to conserve its traditional constituency.

The writer is resident editor of The News International in Islamabad/ Rawalpindi

Au revoir Nawaz Sharif