ISLAMABAD: In established democracies, usually a party’s performance wins or loses it the elections. Most political analysts agree that that is what happened in the 2013 general elections - for the first time in Pakistan’s sad electoral history. Against all predictions and expectations those elections brought Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif to power for an historic third time, with his PML-N sweeping clean its home province, the Punjab. The buzz in the party ever since has been that it owed the victory to the ‘good performance’ by the prime minister’s younger brother Mian Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister in Punjab from 2008 to 2013.
Others, including some partymen, however, credit the PML-N’s exhilarating win more to the “bad, nay dismal, performance” of the bitter rival PPP. Whatever, Shehbaz Sharif’s admirers inside the party and outside insist that the “talented brother” had honed his skills of “a ferocious administrator” from the days when he first ran Punjab as chief minister during the party’s heavy-mandate rule across the country from 1997 until the October 1999 military coup. Then a pro-PML-N newspaper had christened Mian Shahbaz Sharif the “gutsy brother”.
Nowadays, the “talented brother” is seen carrying his reputation of do-gooder everywhere - negotiating MoUs worth billions of dollars with the Chinese, attending countless meetings on resolving the politically explosive energy crisis, and taking briefing from the Inter Services Intelligence to hammer out a new national security policy of the country.
Shahbaz Sharif is found constantly shuttling between Lahore and Islamabad. He is so much involved in the affairs of the central government that the opposition parties have started pointing fingers at his omnipresence in the federal capital. They ask why should just Punjab chief minister accompany the prime minister to the ISI headquarter for briefing on national security, why not the chief ministers of the other three provinces which suffer more terrorism and are more in need of first hand information about the downward spiraling security situation in the country?
PMLN leaders however don’t see merit in such criticism.
“Mian Shahbaz Sharif is the face of the party. Yes, the elder Sharif may have charisma, but when it comes to perform, the younger Sharif proves to be the go-getter. We all believe in him,” said a party admirer vigorously, though not on record despite holding an important position in the party.
He justified Shahbaz Sharif’s presence and involvement in the federal government by saying that “all the pressing issues which the party has bumped into were Islamabad based. Be it energy crisis, national security policy, or country’s chronic economic woes, decisions have to be made here, hence, Shahbaz Sharif needs to be here,” he argued.
But, according to an old party guard, there is a different story to Punjab CM’s more than required participation in the meetings of the federal government.
This senior PML-N leader recalled, again off the record, how Mian Nawaz Sharif “mishandled his previous two governments during the 1990s, notably his working relationship with the military leadership.” On both occasions, the strained civil-military relationship dragged the PML-N government to unceremonious exit in 1993 and 1999.
According to him, the elder Sharif has proved to be “an intensely egocentric character” to his own and the party’s misfortune in the past. “Who can forget his tense stand offs, starting with the late army chief, Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua, the late President Ghulam Ishaq Khan to the former army chief, Gen Pervez Musharraf. Only Gen Jahangir Karamat gave in to him quietly,” he said.
It seems, this time around, the “talented brother”, considered a pragmatist by the party, is out to safeguard against such a risk. That’s why he is attending all important meetings as the wise in the PML-N feel the coming months are crucial for the ruling party as it has to select a new president and appoint a new army chief.
Since the PML-N holds comfortable majority in the Electoral College for the presidency, and Punjab already occupies the office of prime minister, the party is comfortable with picking the president of its choice from Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Shahbaz Sharif will definitely help his elder brother in choosing the presidential candidate from the smaller provinces to gain the party the image of a national level political force.
However, appointing the army chief is a different kettle of fish. Last time, the party chose Gen Parvez Musharraf to its regret. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made that supposedly-safe choice after forcing Gen Jahangir Karamat to resign following his publicly expressed desire for a national security council, with the military represented on it.
It is said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, whose brother was secretary defence at that time, was instrumental in making the choice that proved “fatal”.
An incumbent federal minister told Dawn that with these distasteful experiences with the military in the hindsight, the Sharif brothers didn’t want to take any risk this time. Shahbaz Sharif was particularly in touch with the military leadership who should lead the army when Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani retires in November after serving two terms.