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What do we do with Shahbaz? 

August 11, 2017

WHAT does the PML-N do with the man called Shahbaz Sharif is the question. The famed Punjab chief minister has just too many purposes to serve for his party to assign him work or a title easily. This at a time when the failure to tap the true Shahbazian potential at maximum speed could well blur the picture to the great disadvantage of the House of Sharifs.

It was initially announced that Shahbaz, the long-promoted natural heir to Nawaz, would formally take over from the elder brother in NA-120. Many were ready for the takeover. Few believed that the NA-120 contest, for all its dimensions and ramifications, was worth pledging a Shahbaz.

The plan that emerged in the heat immediately after Nawaz’s disqualification appeared to be rushed. Soon afterwards, it was realised that the PML-N was not ‘too serious’ in fielding Shahbaz as their candidate in the Lahore constituency vacated by Mian Nawaz Sharif. The option was considered to be a bit of a waste when so much work was required to be done elsewhere.

The romantic version of the saga would be where the two brothers sail in each other’s company throughout and, if worse comes to worse, sink together.

The work included a person no less than Shahbaz Sharif dashing to Rawalpindi frequently to meet a very important person. This VIP could not be escaped because, going by convention, he could help the ruling party move in the ‘right’ direction post-disqualification, which is a million times more important than merely tackling PTI’s Dr Yasmin Rashid for a National Assembly seat.

The PML-N believes, and its estimates are backed by casual surveys of the constituency, that a Sharif candidate is still hard to beat in the area. If that candidate happens to be from the family of rulers, even if not a Nawaz Sharif or Shahbaz Sharif, the chances of a PML-N victory increase manifold. This despite the vote gains by the opposition since Mian Sahib scored his first National Assembly win from the area in 1985.

The chief minister was better utilised elsewhere — like when he worked to try and ensure a safe return home for the deposed Nawaz via GT Road — the title for a thoroughfare which has been repeatedly used to highlight the Sharif brothers’ alleged bias for a stretch between Lahore and Islamabad. While this left some angry — the most prominent amongst them Shahbaz’s wife Tehmina Durrani — this was again a job which couldn’t be avoided.

Ms Durrani insisted that the GT Road journey had unduly burdened Shahbaz — which is a very reasonable observation from a concerned wife. Her sentiment was, however, in direct contrast with those who had the good chief minister under the microscope for any signs that he was not fully and loyally committed to his elder brother and old sworn leader in his moment of trial. This group of observers belonged to the camp that has been all too eagerly awaiting the split with the Sharifs, which appears more imminent and unavoidable now than it has been at any other time in the past.

The romantic and faithful version of the saga would be where the two brothers sail in each other’s company throughout and, if worse comes to worst, sink together. That would be the ideal folklore conclusion of the Nawaz-Shahbaz fable. Yet the PML-N has its own demands which cast Shahbaz in the role of a possible saviour. The man, the epitome of the traditional younger brother always standing by an elder brother — always the more mature, more empowered and authoritative sibling — must take time out to express his good wishes for Nawaz’s homecoming. There has actually been a steady stream of sentiments in the form of statements from him. These are sharp and cogent, dipped deep in the sense of determination the PML-N has been able to showcase in this moment of desperation, to the surprise and utter disappointment of many.

A large number of commentators had predicted a quick caving in of the PML-N edifice in the wake of the Nawaz sacking. Many had used the party’s own refrain of it being a victim of a conspiracy to forecast a fast uprooting of the Sharif factor from the politics of Punjab and the country. These analyses were based on reason and history alright, but the PML-N has proven to be a little more obdurate this time. The signs have all been delayed. The final pronouncement, about this being a path that will lead to a decimation of Sharif politics has not yet been withdrawn — especially, as PML-N insists — if this is to be taken as a conspiracy. It will take time and there will be resistance.

One favourite ‘sure shot’ consequence that was set to follow this time around was the formal rise of the Shahbaz faction within the PML-N. This was based on the quite visible division of views — and interests — within the party. There is a belief that the long and loyalty-inspiring relationship between Nawaz and Shahbaz notwithstanding, a point had been reached where the two brothers had to finally part ways for their own personal reasons, to save their combined legacy and indeed to prevent the party from unravelling. For good or for bad, that moment has so far eluded the Sharif well-wishers and their detractors. It is, on the other hand, quite clear that if Shahbaz Sharif is to play the agent who binds the PML-N and leads the rescue act he must come out of his big brother’s long shadow.

They say they are making Shahbaz Sharif the new PML-N chief. This will be a most difficult act. Much tougher than leading your own faction or facing murder charges from Tahirul Qadri. He will have to retain his old loyal posture and yet manoeuvre himself into a position where he is not considered just a poor messenger of his brother to the party and people at large. If he is unable to do so he will be doing irretrievable damage to his own reputation as a doer. He must appear in charge of his own operations for his appointment to be meaningful, with some empowering help from Mian Nawaz Sharif.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2017