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Shahbaz’s call

Updated August 03, 2018

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IT is 1977. A man in his late 20s turns up at the Gulberg residence of Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, father of Chaudhry Shujaat Husain and uncle of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. He offers financial help to the chaudhries in their election held by the government of the power-obsessed Z.A. Bhutto. According to Chaudhry Shujaat’s recent book, the resourceful visitor is none other than Mian Nawaz Sharif who is met by Pervaiz Elahi. The offer is declined.

A few years have passed. In Punjab, the custodians of the Ziaul Haq regime are looking for a person who can consolidate the dictator’s gains in the province. Finally, they decide that Mian Muhammad Sharif’s eldest son, Nawaz, is best suited for the job. A while later, the others in the Zia brood are asked to swear allegiance to Mian Nawaz Sharif’s leadership in the province. The chaudhries of Gujrat submit without too much of an effort.

Some more years elapse. It is time for Nawaz, now increasingly being referred to as Mian Sahib, to graduate to the seat of power in Islamabad. There is much talk that, for the sake of democracy, the replacement in the chief minister’s house in Lahore, should come from outside the Sharif family. At the last minute — and once again the prime source here is the Gujrat ‘narrative’ — Pervaiz Elahi is dropped in favour of Shahbaz Sharif.

There are other small but significant episodes involving the two families but let’s skip them and talk about the 1999 coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf — the momentous event which finally brought an end to the Sharif-Chaudhry partnership that had developed and flourished under the guardianship of Gen Zia. The chaudhries insist that the Sharifs had left them with no option but to fend for themselves after Kulsum Nawaz managed to orchestrate their great escape from jail. The Sharifs were visibly angry because of the Chaudhry Shujaat-Pervaiz Elahi duo siding with their nemesis Gen Musharraf. By all signs, the partnership was broken without the Sharifs in any way wanting any relationship with the chaudhries.

It was not a Sharif who knocked at Pervaiz Elahi’s door in a moment of desperation.

The year was 2008. There was definitely an element of karma for those who stood applauding Shahbaz Sharif’s effortless decimation of the hapless Chaudhry camp. There was no dearth of people who had won their Punjab Assembly seats in the 2008 general election on the Musharraf party nomination but who were now keen to shed the ‘Q’ distinction mark with ‘N’. There was hardly any protest by the chaudhries who were pragmatic enough to realise that no amount of agitated antics could get them anything at that particular moment in time.

That they were realistic judges of ground-level politics came under severe doubt when the chaudhries entered into an electoral alliance with the PPP for the 2013 general election. Much has been written about how Gujrat in 2013 was the PPP’s Waterloo and the subject would be of interest to the political historians in the coming years. It did not in any way help the chaudhries to reinvent their PML-Q in any big way. Rather, that general election reconfirmed how limited their hold in Punjab was.

That impression might well have helped erase any memories of the time when the Sharifs of Lahore and the chaudhries of Gujrat were closest allies, under Gen Zia’s protective umbrella, against basically the PPP. Despite politics being a discipline where nothing could be ruled out, few, least of all the ‘arrogant’ PML-N cadres, could have at the time betted on a Sharif turning up at the old Zahoor Elahi house in Lahore, this time asking for, not extending, help.

It was not a Sharif who knocked at Pervaiz Elahi’s door in a moment of desperation. Which made the call even more awkward. The responsibility of trying to somehow win over the chaudhries for a possible PML-N attempt at forming the government in Punjab was given to an MNA and a politician called Ayaz Sadiq.

This was a telltale choice of an emissary. Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who bravely entered the PML-N fold while the Sharifs were condemned and in exile, had no history of having been allied in any way with the chaudhries whose assistance was now sought to save the grand Shahbaz Sharif edifice in Punjab which could be in danger should the PTI come to power.

The role, apparently, was assigned due to Sardar Ayaz’s position as the speaker of the previous assembly. In that capacity, he might have had the opportunity to interact with Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, an MNA. On the other hand, many would have thought that the members of the old N-League coterie would have been on better speaking terms with either Chaudhry Shujaat Husain or Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. Or maybe the Ahsan Iqbals and Khawaja Asifs and Raja Zafarul Haqs of this world have been similarly removed from their old friends in Gujrat with the capacity to secure a handful of — crucial — seats.

The call should have in all earnestness come from Shahbaz Sharif and not Sardar Ayaz Sadiq. Media reports say that the PML-N was desperate to gain the support of seven — or eight or nine — MPAs who had either won election on the PML-Q symbol or who had since joined the party. That should have been enough of a reason for Shahbaz Sharif to retrace the Sharif steps to the house Mian Sahib had sought to extend his patronage to four decades ago.

But that is not Shahbaz Sahib’s style. It is no coincidence that Sardar Ayaz is today tasked with sounding out Pervaiz Elahi and Khurshid Shah and any other politicians in the bad habit of killing time in parliament. Shahbaz Sharif on his part liked to spend it in pursuits away from where the legislators chatted away singing praises of collective efforts and democracy. It had apparently never occurred to the current PML-N chief that at some stage he would be so frustratingly short of backing in the house that his whole legacy would be under threat. Maybe, the lower house will teach him to be a little more tolerant of the assemblies.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor on Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2018