A change of face

March 02, 2018

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LAST Monday, Chinese engineers performed a short trial run of the famous Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore. This was ostensibly meant to gauge the load capacity of the track that has come about at almost a feverish pace. The timing of the test run added to its significance.

The test run, which was conducted a day ahead of Mian Shahbaz Sharif’s election as president of the PML-N, had great symbolic value for those who believe in signs and omens. It signified proceedings on the track that has been a favourite of Shahbaz Sahib, who, it goes without saying, has had a special relationship with the man he replaced as party president.

The change can be easily shrugged off with a quick mention of the fact that the big brother is very much there and watching in his usual, deceptively disinterested manner. Mian Nawaz Sharif in his new role as lifetime guide of the party, does, according to one version, take a lot of sheen off Shahbaz Sahib’s inevitable rise as party president. Those who choose to not take notice of the maturing of the younger Sharif brother do so at the risk of missing out on substance and masala in the story.

Shahbaz Sharif has to maintain a delicate balance. He must retain his individual profile but also show closeness to the Nawaz-Maryam combine.

To begin with, the PML-N has succeeded in conveying to everyone that it has been forced to make the change in trying circumstances. Meaning that if this was such a non-issue it could have been done earlier. Shahbaz Sahib’s appointment as president and the promotion of Mian Sahib to the exalted position of guide-companion was a complicated enough matter to have required some nudging from the honourable court. This would indicate that there are some consequences to take care of, over and above the chants of the traditional PML-N unity and brotherliness.

Most important, appearances — the optics as experts fondly call them — have to be right. The image of an obviously proud and determined-looking Shahbaz Sharif with his niece Maryam Nawaz is a lovely addition to the gallery recording key sentimental moments in the history of the Sharif dynasty. The thing to remember is that post-celebration it could well be how much space the former party president can allow the new incumbent.

Shahbaz Sharif has to maintain a delicate balance. He must retain his individual profile, as highlighted by the trial of the Orange train earlier this week. On the other hand, he has to show closeness to the Nawaz-Maryam combine that has come to represent a strand in the PML-N which is altogether different, and often counter to, Shahbaz’s own more careful approach.

The purpose of both tactics may be the same ie pulling the party out of the marshes. But perhaps Shahbaz was much better off as a very able Punjab chief minister whose main — or only — concern was the fast pursuance of his very popular development model. As president of the PML-N he might find it difficult to camouflage whatever his real sentiment is behind his obsession with full-steam train engines.

One measure of the difficulties that may come in Shahbaz Sharif’s path — arising primarily from the confrontational mode of the Nawaz-Maryam flank — is that he has to begin this new chapter without the company of his old co-driver on so many crucial missions. He will feel the absence of Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and will have to be cautious about what allies of his own he operates with on the chessboard — for fear of a clash with those who are widely considered to be the PML-N’s real owners.

As post-change scenes go, there is quite a lot of emphasis in Lahore on Mian Sahib having to take a step back rather than on Shahbaz Sahib finally wearing the mantle that he was long tipped to. If this is not unexpected, the kind of expressions of disappointment that have accompanied the change captures the stark Lahori divide that helps people here to place the two Sharif politicians in two different compartments.

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, Mian Nawaz Sharif remains by far the most capable politician in the Sharif household contest. He has to be there overseeing it all, just as his Quaid status should entail in theory, leaving the lesser — yes less important — administrative and developmental work to the nearly boisterous Shahbaz Sahib. There are people who invoke difficult arts such as understanding body language to insist that Mian Sahib was not exactly a happy soul as he presided over the ceremony that marked the ‘passing of the baton’ to the long-time heir apparent.

Whereas the impression could be rooted more in his placement in the party rather than Shahbaz Sahib’s crowning, there is more than one reason why Nawaz-Maryam combine must be very suave in their dealing with party matters. Any apparent snub to the party president would not only be potentially damaging to the PML-N, besides leading to serious questions about Shahbaz Sahib’s abilities to head a party, it will also have an adverse effect on his position as the answer to all Punjab’s problems.

Despite being a most loyal soldier in Mian Nawaz Sharif’s army, Shahbaz Sharif draws his Punjab appeal from his ability to take his own decisions in the province. In the most sensitive position that his family, his party and his own self find themselves in today, a new image where he is seen to be in any way subservient to considerations other than his own will be a new for him. He could well have been cramped by his brother’s political needs, but that was when he wasn’t formally the leader of the party. The new role brings its own responsibilities. It is certainly needs greater deftness than required for running a train through the heart of Lahore.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2018