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Two sides to a family

Updated October 20, 2017

MARYAM NAWAZ and Hamza Shahbaz have finally met. The split has been formalised. The meeting has been celebrated by some as an occasion that marks the big patch-up between the two branches of the Sharif household. It is anything but.

The Shahbaz Sharif side of the family has made it known that it is not prepared to go down the path of confrontation favoured by Ms Maryam and her father, the ousted Mian Nawaz Sharif. Hamza has come clean on what he wants, albeit trying to cover his intent behind a thin veil.

Those who have not been disqualified — namely Shahbaz and Hamza – are going to try and salvage the situation and try and rehabilitate the PML-N as a banner capable of ruling over this country. This could well leave out Mian Nawaz Sharif and frustrate Maryam Nawaz’s attempt at winning the mantle of party leadership.

Will a dispensation salvaged from the ongoing crisis have any room for Mian Sahib?

There is, of course, this matter of Mian Sahib not having been given a fair chance to defend himself in court. The ambitious Hamza does see lacuna in the verdict that disqualified his uncle, whose mannerisms and speech the long-time heir to the Sharif crown has visibly copied all his political life. Hence the slogan for the time being is going to be focused on the demand for justice for Mian Sahib.

It does not, however, take a genius to notice the chasm that both Shahbaz Sahib and Hamza now make no effort to hide. This could well be permanent, notwithstanding Mr Hamza’s grand but meaningless promise that he — and his father — will finally be able to convince the other side of the family — or the family on the other side — to see reason and shun confrontation with institutions.

And it is interesting what Hamza, who has been apparently given the freedom to help his father set the tone for PML-N politics after a period of silence, means by ‘institutions’ here. He means the army. He does not mention the judiciary.

The romantics must have been hurt. They had been predicting that there would be no split in the family. They insisted that either it would be Mian Nawaz Sharif supported by Shahbaz Sharif as always, or Shahbaz with the approval of Nawaz, as has been the case in the past. In the book of loyalty, neither was supposed to go against the other and go solo in the fight for power in Pakistan.

In the event, each was forced by circumstances to choose a younger partner, from within his household. Not everyone is pleased by the new pairing. For many, tradition and the folklore of faithfulness takes precedence over everything else including power politics. The continuity has now been broken, and by the look of it, Hamza & co have assigned themselves the impossible task of bringing Mian Sahib back on the track to resurrection.

Mian Sahib has come some distance on this path. He has been far too forthright in his rejection of the causes and players behind his ouster from power for the third time. In the process, he has built a kind of new support for himself and his party. However, it is also true that there has been in recent times a shift in the PML-N thrust.

It is actually not so much a change in the direction of the main PML-N plank. What has been done is that the other prong in the party, represented by Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar etc, has been allowed to go its way. Earlier, this group within the party had been suppressed and made to watch and wait as Maryam Nawaz and Mian Sahib himself went about countering the ‘conspiracy’ against him aggressively.

The advice that the PML-N follow a less confrontational or a reconciliatory approach is supported by many who believe that a face-off between parties and institutions could derail democracy in the country. There are genuine expectations that a less aggressive strategy by the PML-N could yet take the party out of its current troubles. But the question is, will a dispensation salvaged from the ongoing crisis have any room for Mian Sahib? Or is the party set for a transfer of power?

Another crucial question is Shahbaz Sahib’s own eligibility. A non-confrontational role could in certain situations earn a politician a clean chit from certain institutions with interest in the country’s politics and its power set-up. Yet it is difficult to see that political opponents of the Sharifs and the PML-N will be generous enough to not take their legal fight for accountability to a stage where they would be asking for the disqualification of Shahbaz Sharif and other members of the Sharif family.

It is very tough to expect Imran Khan to follow an agenda not his own. It will be even more difficult to keep him under any kind of control now that his associates openly declare him the next prime minister of Pakistan. He is likely to go after the Punjab chief minister with full force and may be difficult to contain.

In the circumstances, the PML-N might want to not altogether do away with its confrontational face. It might need to go back to the aggressive mode full-throttle in case its reconciliatory side runs against some kind of a hurdle, created by Imran Khan alone or by a combination of factors involving more than the PTI.

There has to be a strict time frame within which the Shahbaz-Hamza approach has to be tried. There have to be early signals hinting at the chances for the success of the reconciliation and non-confrontational option. The aggressive side cannot be put on hold indefinitely lest the absence of anger on this side allows the spiteful opponents a free hit at the Sharifs on the whole, without discrimination.

This is a clash within alright. Such is the nature of the fight that the two sets emerging within the Sharif household are as much in competition with each other as they are with their common opponents.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2017