LAHORE: The focus was on Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as he on Tuesday attended a ‘very important’ meeting of the party stalwarts chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to discuss the situation arising out of the joint investigation team (JIT) report.

Shahbaz, who seems to have escaped indictment in the JIT report, is a big Sharif missing from the diatribe against the family unleashed by the opponents and disapproving analysts in media. He is now being reinforced as an ‘all-important player’ of the Sharif family in case the premier and his children get an adverse court decision in the Panama Papers case.

“Shahbaz Sharif is playing his cards very carefully. He is standing by his brother in this hour of crisis and at the same time he has been in contact with those who matter,” says a PML-N leader who would remain anonymous in the interest of his own politics.

“There has been a lot of talk in the party about the possibility of Shahbaz replacing Nawaz in case the latter is disqualified. Who will then take charge of Punjab if Shahbaz is moved to the Centre. In fact, Shahbaz will never let Punjab slip out, even when he is destined for greater heights at the Centre. But of course he will have to do a lot of manoeuvering to secure and keep Punjab -- say under his son Hamza Shahbaz,” he says.

“But the big question is, does the PML-N leadership trust Shahbaz blindly and will it allow him to play a role in the Centre (in Nawaz’s absence) or choose someone else in the party (to replace the prime minister for remainder period till 2018 election should such a need arise) or will it go for any other option,” he says.

Unlike a bunch of close aides of the premier who according to one legal view risked contempt of court in challenging openly the establishment and judiciary in their outburst to defend Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz has treaded a cautious path in his defence of Nawaz and his children since their offshore holdings revealed by the Panama Papers.

Shahbaz and Hamza did accompany Nawaz to the complex in Islamabad where the JIT quizzed the prime minister. However, neither the Punjab chief minister nor his son were there to accompany Maryam, Hussain and Hasan to the same venue for their appearances before the JIT.

“Shahbaz and Hamza may not be in the forefront this time too to defend the premier and his children in the charges leveled against them by the JIT report in coming days,” the PML-N leader said while calling it a political move.

Punjab government spokesman Malik Ahmad Khan dispelled the impression that Shahbaz Sharif was ‘quiet’ after the JIT report has been submitted to the Supreme Court. “There is also no truth in the impression that the chief minister is not defending his brother openly. The Sharif family is fighting the case and will emerge successful,” he said.

The PML-N is quick to deny any talk of there being difference of opinion between the households of Nawaz and Shahbaz. There have been a series of rebuttals in the wake of rumours that the grand old house of the Sharifs was in any kind of disagreement over the successors to the current leadership. The speculation has however continued, and it has been spiked by the latest JIT ‘indictment’.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2017