The House that Sharif built is not in order. Is the PML-N transitioning into a post-Nawaz party?
The indicators are flashing and wailing like an ambulance light in emergency mode. There’s this meeting over “lavish tea” between Maryam Nawaz, Shehbaz Sharif and Hamza Sharif that launches a media frenzy. Participants then fire off formulaic tweets which occupy the media space for a few hours before they are rudely shoved off the platform by an earthquake triggered by Hamza Shehbaz’s interview on TV. Facing the camera confidently, Hamza declares without any ambiguity that he is hopeful he (and his father) can convince his Taya (elder uncle) and cousin to shun confrontation.
That’s the first public admission of a fundamental disagreement within the House that Sharif built. And the admission is not inadvertent. There can be no inadvertent public admissions by a seasoned politician like Hamza on an issue as sensitive as this at a time as crucial as this. Logic then dictates a decision was made to have Hamza sit on TV and say enough to get the message out loud and clear that he and his father disagree with the policy of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam. But a message for whom?
For the army brass? For the judicial high command? For the party electables? For the voter? Or, all of the above?
Take your pick, but what is perhaps even more important is the father-son duo’s decision to go ahead with relaying this message to the world at large. It is a decision which may have been premised on the following factors: a) The commencement of the trial in the Accountability Court and the indictment of Nawaz Sharif, his children and son-in-law; b) Prospects of a conviction by March when the trial must end and the repercussion of such a judgment leading to possible incarceration; c) Absence of a coherent political strategy for the party and the resultant uncertainty and confusion within the rank and file; d) Decision-making in limbo on key issues like the legislation by Parliament for delimitation of constituency (as pointed out by Babar Sattar in his excellent column) as well as planning for the election campaign and overall strategy for the polls; e) the looming challenge from Imran Khan and his post-Panama narrative that appears to be going unanswered in any effective way; f) whispers of a technocratic government and a fresh round of political engineering in the offing.
The Shehbaz-Hamza duo must have calculated the worst case scenario which may be something like this: 1. Nawaz Sharif and his family are convicted and jailed; 2. A large block of electables breaks away from the party and joins the PTI/PML-Q or decides to contest the elections as independents; 3. Shehbaz Sharif is left in charge of a truncated party which is a hollow shell of its previous self and which has suffered the political and moral degradation of an emaciated leadership while being hounded by the establishment; 4. The party suffers a humiliating defeat at the polls; 5. Sharif family faces an uncertain future with prospects of retaining its leadership position dimming with each passing moment.
This worst case scenario of course does not take into account the likelihood of a system reboot. If that were to happen — again — all bets are off and Sharifs will not be the only losers for sure.
Then there’s the Nawaz Sharif-Maryam scenario in which their policy becomes the final party policy. In this scenario, the father-daughter duo galvanise the party rank and file to ratchet up their narrative against the establishment in a bid to discredit the courts and their ultimate judgment. The logic is to paint Nawaz Sharif as a victim of a massive conspiracy against him so that his fight becomes a fight on behalf of the people to save the system that represents them. Nawaz Sharif then becomes David battling the Goliath and if he does end up in jail it would establish his credentials as a political martyr accepting incarceration but not compromising on principles. As per this logic, this narrative would be adopted by his party as the campaign narrative. A vote for Nawaz Sharif would be termed a vote for democracy whereas a vote for his opponents, and Imran Khan in particular, would be termed a vote for strengthening the hands of the enemies of democracy. This scenario assumes the party will remain intact and the electables would opt to fight this fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Nawaz Sharif.
Finally the Shehbaz-Hamza logic: 1. Panama has degraded the moral authority of Nawaz Sharif and his family almost irredeemably; 2. The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif (even though on a flimsy technicality) has diminished his clout over levers of the state despite his nominee sitting in the PM Office, 3. The trial will throw up more details about his money matters and more embarrassing questions about the money trail leading to further degradation of the Brand Sharif in the eyes of the electorate; 4. The confrontational approach will not find traction with the party electables who will decide it’s not politically prudent to hang around a wobbly platform; 5. Critical therefore to mend fences with the establishment and cement a perception that the party is ready to play ball; 6. Hold the party together by convincing the electables and the voters that Brand Shehbaz is now ready to break out of the shackles of Punjab and take on the Khan juggernaut across the length and breadth of the country; 7. Bring on board the likes of Chaudhry Nisar and other ‘accommodating’ party grandees with a history of being on the right side of the establishment and burnish yet again the credentials of the party as the only one with roots, experience and a history of delivering on projects; 8. Voila: Shehbaz League is set to rock and roll.
Possible? A lot depends on the confidence of the father-son duo in reading the situation correctly and taking the plunge into unknown waters. A lot also depends on whether this is just one option to be exercised by the family failing which (as pointed out by Asha’ar Rehman in his column) the Nawaz-Maryam option always remains on the table.
The House that Sharif built still holds many cards.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2017.