The younger Sharif

April 21, 2024

Will Shahbaz finally step out of his elder brother’s shadow?

The younger Sharif


istory is replete with examples of a family becoming a political force over a short span of time by skilfully employing their social, societal and financial muscle. Supported by the forces that oil the wheels within wheels, these families take over the reins of loosely established orders. In Pakistan, the Sharifs of Lahore are one such family. The House of Sharif cannot be compared with the House of Habsburg, the House of Windsor or the House of Saud. As the country’s first political family currently, they can arguably be compared with dynasties like the Kennedys of the United States, Nehru-Gandhis of India, Bhuttos of Pakistan and Sheikh’s of Bangladesh.

Rising from an upper middle-class business background, the Sharif brothers have dominated the country’s political scene for almost four decades. Nawaz has the distinction of being the longest serving prime minister of the country, having had three non-consecutive terms, all ending prematurely. Shahbaz can boast about being the longest-serving chief minister of the Punjab. He is currently serving a second term as prime minister of Pakistan – the first being a 16-month stint after Imran Khan was ousted through a vote of no-confidence in April 2022.

The younger Sharif

Shepherded by his elder brother ever since he was elected to the Punjab Assembly in 1988, Shahbaz has been a careful equilibrist inching ahead on a tightrope knotted with political, economic, societal and governance landmines. As the longest-serving chief minister of Pakistan’s most populated province, Shahbaz distinguished himself as an able administrator. From turning up in the middle of the night to superintend work on infrastructure projects to pre-dawn helicopter trips to various districts to mollify public outcry following a shocking crime, to donning Wellington boots and wading through rain water to ensure municipal authorities drained it as soon as possible, the younger Sharif did everything to carve out a niche for himself as the servant-in-chief (khadim-i-a’ala) of the province.

For the last couple of decades, political activity has been largely reduced to daily press statements by the federal and provincial ministers and departmental press notes. In a country where the government finds itself incapacitated to govern and deliver services; where parliamentarians are always pleading for development funds for their constituencies; and where non-elected institutions and departments regularly poke their noses into the Executive’s business, TV talk shows present a perfect circus every evening. Anchors invite politicians and analysts to debate developments of the day. Many of the “experts” are however as informed as a fortune teller perched in a city bazaar. A few months ago, most TV pundits prophesied that Nawaz will return from his self-exile in London to head the government and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and will sweep into power with a clear majority. This did not come to pass.

The social media cacophony regarding the conduct and the count of the recent ballot aside, the fact is that the PMLN and the Pakistan Peoples Party have formed a coalition government. Shahbaz has once again been picked to be the prime minister. For now, the PPP has settled for a supporting role without accepting any cabinet positions. Seven smaller parties, however, have been accommodated in the cabinet.

Party insiders have diverse tales to tell about what exactly happened on and after February 8. Some admit that the party was pummelled. Others say Nawaz Sharif did not want to be a prime minister for the fourth time. Strangely, that was the slogan the party was going hoarse chanting before the election day. It asked people to give Pakistan Nawaz Sharif – Pakistan ko Nawaz doe.

Forgetting fiction and accepting fact is never a bad policy. Shahbaz Sharif is now the prime minister of Pakistan. Ever since he was elected to the Punjab Assembly in 1988, he has been in the shadow of his elder brother. Is he ready and confident enough to veer off the political course laid out by Nawaz and act independently? A cursory glance at Pakistan’s current issues makes one believe that most of the challenges that will test Shahbaz will be domestic. His biggest challenge will be his elder brother.

Many claim that the two brothers have perfected the art of playing good-cop bad-cop and have so far foiled all attempts from the garrison to cause a split between the two. However, Nawaz’s body language speaks of unhappiness. He has stationed himself at Lahore, apparently to help his daughter learn the slippery ropes of governance. She does not have a vibrant political team so far and has been less than impressive with her decision making. Nawaz may soon become the party president in order to reorganise the cadres. Shahbaz will likely be too busy managing the economy and dealing with his allies and backers.

This does not mean that Shahbaz will have an easy run. He will have to work hard to prevent Mount Nawaz from erupting. It will be interesting to see how he works his team of ministers. He will probably be banking on bureaucrats rather than political comrades. That is the way he is known to work. Many in the PMLN have been whispering that while Nawaz was a listener, Shahbaz loves passing orders. “He seems to see himself as a philosopher king who has all the answers,” says one.

Keeping an eye out for Asif Ali Zardari will be another major challenge for Shahbaz. Bereft of a competent team in his cabinet, he will have to play ball with a president who has deployed a potent personal political platoon in the form of two of his children – Bilawal and Aseefa – and his sisters – Faryal and Azra. His party has governments in Sindh and Balochistan with dependable Murad Ali Shah and ambitious Sarfraz Bugti as chief ministers. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ali Amin Gandapur of the PTI will be a handful. The Punjab, though run by his niece, Maryam Nawaz, may not always see eye to eye with Islamabad.

Apart from attempting to revive the stagnant economy, Shahbaz will be watching what reprieve Imran Khan gets from the courts. As long as Khan is incarcerated, Shahbaz and his administration can focus on tasks given to them. Once Imran is out, the street could boil and test his political skills. Since the PMLN-PPP administration has nothing to do with the cases that took Imran Khan from Bani Gala to Adiala, Shahbaz could leave the matter to the other actors that want the former cricketer to remain behind bars. The system may be supportive of Shahbaz but it will demand a few miracles.

Shahbaz could sit tight as along as Nawaz and Zardari are onside. Otherwise, the chief of army staff, will be his most potent supporter. On many occasions previously Shahbaz has tried to reason with his brother to “work with the establishment.” Nawaz is known not to have fully agreed, advocating civilian supremacy instead. Shahbaz has always been known to be a task master. Applauded for the speed with which his teams and administration have completed some of the infrastructure projects, he was also criticised for carrying out tasks on his brother’s behalf. Pakistan will have to wait and see how Shahbaz blossoms over the coming months and years and what kind of vision he has for the country.

Politically speaking, Shahbaz is currently between a rock and a hard place. It will be a long while before he is out of the woods. For now, many see him as the garrison’s pick. He will face a big challenge when he needs to pick the next army chief. Until then, he can be the perfect picture of an uneasy head that wears the crown.

The writer is the resident editor of The News, Islamabad

The younger Sharif