It started with Panama and it is closing at al Azizia, Nawaz Sharif’s troubles appear to be never ending with the accountability court announcing seven years’ jail sentence to the former PM. One wonders how such a powerful man got himself into this mess that has taken a toll on his political and personal life. Power struggle with the establishment aside, there is a structural reason why Nawaz Sharif continued to slide deeper into this mess since the Panama scandal.
A close-knit, family-based political dynasty may have given Nawaz Sharif the ultimate power to rule in the short term. In the long run, it has come at a great expense to the Sharif family. This is because the downside of having a political dynasty is that its inherent structure breeds internal conspiracies leaving the ‘ruling family’ more vulnerable to inside threats than any outside threat.
In that sense, Nawaz Sharif has become a permanent prisoner of those around him, some that want him gone right away, a few that want him to genuinely stay, and a large group of those shrewd ones that neither want him entirely gone, nor want him to stay. These are the ones that you see on the TV continuing to express their everlasting love for Nawaz Sharif but in the backdoors see the Sharif family as a hindrance to their rise. In these terrible times for the Sharif family, there are many of these in the party that have built or advanced their political careers by ill advice garbed neatly as ‘loyalty’ to the Sharifs. The challenge for them is how to swiftly push the Sharif family out of politics while retaining and capitalising on the Sharif legacy and name.
The Panama scandal and the subsequent debacle gave this lot a perfect opportunity to push Nawaz on the edge of the cliff, and then they let the establishment complete their job. The biggest joke that this lot in the PML-N played with Nawaz was to make him believe of an outside threat from the establishment, when the real conspiracy was getting hatched right inside his own circle by the very people advising him to go ‘head on’ with the military. Nawaz could have and should have resigned at the very first whim of Panama scandal, but those that wanted him permanently out led him to a point of no return. The tragedy of a political dynasty is that it puts loyalty over competence, but gets neither loyalty nor sensibility as a result.
This internal party dynamic is what explains one of the 2018’s biggest puzzles: why did nobody jump ship from the PML-N at a time when almost every pundit expected a large migration from the PML-N to the PTI? For the naïve, it was the love for Nawaz or a belief in the ‘civilian supremacy’. For those that know the internal party dynamics, it was simply a matter of opportunity. Scratch a little surface off the PML-N’s democracy rhetoric, and you will find by and large majority of the party to be pro-establishment and no matter what, will continue to remain pro-establishment given their deep roots in Gen Zia’s era and rural Punjab. Before the 2018 elections when Nawaz was shown the door, the signals that party leaders and political workers got from the establishment were mixed. It appeared that the establishment would in the end throw its weight behind Shehbaz Sharif. Therefore, jumping ship didn’t make any sense. Second, those in the PML-N that have worked for decades saw a coming change within the party with the removal of the Sharif dynasty. To jump ship at a time when there was finally a chance to rise in the party ranks and make a political career was not a wise move to make. And then there were the henchmen, a group of 2-3 individuals that actually wanted Nawaz to stick around because they entirely relied on his grace for their advisory and ministerial position.
This is one of the most interesting dynamics of Punjabi politics represented so evidently within the PML-N. Nawaz has become a prisoner to a multi-layered power struggle of individuals, circles and lobbies within the PML-N that together have put Nawaz’s head on the bench to axe. The Sharif political dynasty has become a classic victim of the traps inherent in the political dynasty structures. Those that laid the trap will go on and continue to create a legacy out of the Sharif family but without a Sharif family to rule the political party. When the change is finally in place, what is left of the PML-N is likely to go back to its original state of pro-establishment waiting and praying for the establishment to get weary of Imran. That day the PML-N will rise again, unfortunately minus Nawaz. The Sharif family will only have itself and those around it to blame.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2018.