They said he had run scared. They said he would never return. They said his game was over.
They were wrong.
Shehbaz Sharif returns to Pakistan today after spending a month in London. It was a long month for him and his party. It was also a long month for his opponents who wasted no opportunity in rejoicing at his “escape” as they termed it. For them his absence from the country meant a vindication of their claims that the Sharifs would prefer to flee into exile rather than face the long arm of the law.
As far as the PTI was concerned, Nawaz was not expected to come back from London to face jail. He did. Shehbaz was not expected to come back from London to face jail. He did. Did their opponents miscalculate?
Everyone knew if the Sharifs preferred exile to resistance their politics would suffer grievous damage. Exile was never an option. PTI spokesmen have always known this and yet their interests demanded that they kept peddling this narrative for as long as this narrative could be peddled. Today, with the return of Shehbaz, this narrative expires.
This in itself is not that big a deal. In the age we live in, narratives are easy to weave and easier to disseminate. What is a bit more difficult is to figure out who is standing where in the game of power. With Shehbaz back in Pakistan, this question will raise its head on at least two counts. First, what impact will his return have on the political swirl inside the PML-N? Second, how will his presence affect the relationship between the PTI and the Establishment?
His party has not been dormant since Shehbaz left for London. Nawaz’s return to jail was a catalyst for a fresh round of hostilities between the PML-N and PTI’s World XI. In this contest, the famous Iftar hosted by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari upended not just optics but also political dynamics by weaponising the prospects of a PML-N – PPP joint resistance against the PTI’s World XI. Armchair warriors began to hyperventilate that an incompetent and bumbling government could not possibly withstand the ferocious attack of a joint opposition fuelled by the power of inflation. The war was on, many argued with relish, and the PML-N was back in its original fire-breathing mode. Peace, they said, had outrun its utility. A verdict was hastily passed by exuberant analysts: the age of Shehbaz was over.
Did they jump the gun?
In many respects, even seasoned political-watchers took their eye off the ball. They got so entangled in the ‘Nawaz narrative’ and ‘Shehbaz narrative’ that they missed out the shifting sands of political calculations. Yes sure there was the “vote ko izzat do” (respect the vote) slogan of Nawaz and the “khidmat ko vote do” (vote for service/governance) slogan of Shehbaz, but these separate streams were a product of a certain time for a certain purpose. Once elections were done and over with and the PTI was placed firmly in the saddle, a new situation had presented itself to the PML-N and its leaders were in a better position to read this landscape.
Here’s what the new landscape read:
The Establishment was in control in every sense while the PTI government was the garnishing on top – the tarka on the daal, so to speak. In a perfect world, Sharifs and their PML-N could have stuck to their pre-election aggressive politicking and played the all-or-nothing game as the Opposition; in a perfect world, they could have burnished their credentials as the only true democrats out to take on the combined might of the ‘puppet and his puppeteers’; and in a perfect world their ideologically-driven politics could have found traction among an electorate thirsting for an overhaul of a system that did not give izzat to their vote.
Alas! This ain’t a perfect world.
The return of Shehbaz is a clear indication that his party is ready and willing to work and succeed in an imperfect world. Of course there are differences of opinion within the party, but these fall well inside the spectrum provided by the imperfection of a world in which izzat is not monopolised by the vote alone.
The PML-N cadre today is divided among idealists, realists and hyper-realists. The idealists, it is safe to say, have been put in snooze mode, the realists are slowly finding their voice within the party and the hyper-realists are salivating at the prospects of being back in the game.
In fact it is to this game that we turn to now when analysing the impact of Shehbaz’s return on the relationship between the PTI and the Establishment. It is fairly obvious that the PTI’s stint in power is predicated on two factors: one, the full support of the Establishment; two, the lack of any credible alternative at this stage. If the PML-N wants to negotiate a path back to power, it will need to be seen as that alternative.
And what will it take for it to become that alternative? This is the question that every PML-N leader is asking himself and herself. But one thing is clear: the aggression against the Establishment is over after the reluctant – and belated – realisation that the contest between the head and the wall is in fact no contest. How then does the PML-N attack Imran Khan’s shaky government without attacking those who are lending it a shoulder? How to create space between Khan and his backers and wriggle inside? How to walk this tightrope while balancing ten plates on your head?
The return of Shehbaz promises a return to prudence and tact. It also signals that the leadership is ready and willing to play the game by the laid-down rules. The next few weeks may throw up plenty of surprises but when you’re playing a Test match – and not a T20 – you do not need to take a swing at every ball.
Especially when the umpire is not in an accommodating mood.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2019.