A difference of opinion between the Sharif brothers on the issue of relations with the establishment has been visible from time to time
fter foiling the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s bid to oust the government through a long march and withdrawing subsidies on petroleum products and electricity tariff, the ruling coalition has consolidated its position leaving an impression that the conflict of narratives within the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is, if not over, has diminished. Right now, the PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, vice president Maryam Nawaz and people in various respective camps within the party appear to be on the same page about major issues related to the PML-N’s political narrative and elections.
Since the PML-N emerged as a prominent political force on the political landscape of Pakistan and Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister for the first time in 1990, the difference of opinion between him and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif on the issue of relations with the establishment has surfaced on several occasions. The elder brother has insisted on unfettered powers for the prime minister without any interference by the establishment while the younger Sharif has believed in good relations with the establishment and coexistence in the power corridors. Despite his differences with Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif seldom defies his directions.
When Nawaz Sharif was in a row with the then powerful president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, in 1992, Shahbaz Sharif had advised him to be flexible but he had refused. He had then lost his premiership but also taken away Ishaq’s presidency.
In 1997, the PML-N won a landslide victory and got an absolute majority in the National Assembly sweeping seats from every nook and cranny of the country. Nawaz Sharif was elected prime minister and enjoyed more power than before. He appointed Gen Pervez Musharraf as the army chief after his predecessor Gen Jehangir Karamat resigned. The working relationship between the two deteriorated quickly after the Kargil War. Sharif ordered Gen Musharraf replaced while the latter was on an official visit to Sri Lanka. Instead, the generals loyal to Musharraf took over, taking Nawaz Sharif into custody. Shahbaz Sharif, the then Punjab chief minister, tried to mediate between his brother and Gen Musharraf but could not persuade his brother. This left him with no choice except to back his brother. He was also arrested in the coup.
The family was exiled to Saudi Arabia. They returned in 2007. Nawaz took a bold stance against the establishment’s involvement in politics. Shahbaz once again favoured accepting the establishment as a part of the political system. There were several like-minded leaders in the party, including Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who while would express their opinions in front of Nawaz Sharif but could not change his mind.
In 2013, Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister for the third time. His government was challenged by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri’s long marches and sit-ins, which Nawaz believed were planned by the establishment. During those days, Shahbaz and Chaudhry Nisar tried to bridge the gulf by holding meetings with the top military brass. They failed.
Despite his differences with Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif seldom defies his directions.
It is no secret that on several occasions Shahbaz Sharif was offered to abandon his brother and replace him as prime minister. He always refused saying that he could not betray his brother. One such offer was made when a senior journalist from Islamabad was sent to London as an emissary by powerful quarters when Nawaz Sharif was under treatment following a heart surgery and Shahbaz Sharif was there to look after him. The message for Shahbaz was that the political powerhouse was ready to make him the prime minister and would manage to keep Nawaz abroad. However, Shahbaz refused to accept the offer.
When Nawaz was disqualified for public office, PML-N supporters expected Shahbaz to become the prime minister. However, at the time he was serving as the Punjab chief minister, and Nawaz did not want him to leave the PML-N stronghold. Therefore, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was chosen for the premiership. Nawaz insisted that his disqualification was unfair and returned from Islamabad to Lahore via GT Road, raising the slogan ‘respect the vote’, a direct message to the establishment. He was jailed but later went abroad for treatment on court orders. However, Shahbaz, who was imprisoned without being convicted never uttered a word against the establishment. Instead, he targetted Imran Khan and accused him of victimising the family.
In the absence of Nawaz Sharif, his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, took the reins of the party’s affairs in her hands, and continued with her father’s narrative. She directly criticised the top military establishment. However, she softened her speeches against the establishment after the change of the government through a no-confidence motion as the result of which her uncle, Shahbaz Sharif, was elected prime minister. Now she targets only one particular person, who she believes, is still supporting Khan.
However, there was another difference in the narratives of the Nawaz and Shahbaz camps. Nawaz wanted fresh elections immediately while Shahbaz and his supporters were of the view that holding elections at such a time will not be good for the PML-N. Nawaz’s point of view about holding fresh elections were shared by Maryam and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in public rallies when addressing the crowds they said, “Shall we continue to rule only to clean up after the PTI government? We think we should not.”
They brought the ruling coalition under immense pressure. The JUI-F and the MQM also started supporting the idea of fresh elections. However, former president Asif Ali Zardari persuaded Nawaz Sharif and others that the coalition government should continue till Khan’s narrative gets weakened. The PTI has resigned from the National Assembly but is not willing to resign from the provincial assemblies of the KP, the Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh. The PTI also intends to contest the by-elections to the 20 seats of the Punjab Assembly that became vacant after the election commission de-seated the respective PTI members for voting for Hamza Shahbaz. This indicates that the PTI wants to force elections for the National Assembly alone, in the hope that it will regain the government. Winning elections to the provincial assemblies will then be an easier task. It appears that Khan’s narrative and strategy have helped the PML-N overcome the differences in narratives supported by the Nawaz and the Shahbaz camps.
The author is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher