Shahbaz’s distasteful job

Updated August 21, 2018


IT is hard not to feel sorry for Shahbaz Sharif. His brother went from finance minister to chief minister to prime minister (to jail) but Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother, was destined to never grow up. He became chief minister Punjab and then stayed put.

He was forced to watch his brother head straight for a clash with the establishment and then be held responsible for the election results. He is now being blamed for all that has befallen the party on July 25, by the very people who in the same breath accuse the establishment of having done the PML-N out of its due seats in parliament.

He was the personification of the delivery model that became synonymous with the PML-N. But, despite all his hard work, he was never allowed beyond Pindi.

But what was it? Did the party lose in Punjab because the establishment worked overtime to ensure the defeat or did Shahbaz Sharif’s lily-livered message during the election campaign do the damage? For, if it was the latter, then really, what chance did Shahbaz Sharif have? Had he roared like his brother and niece, would it have reversed all the ‘damage’ done in the past one year?

So, the younger brother has been made the scapegoat. And in the process, few remember his contribution to the juggernaut called the PML-N in Punjab. For all the jokes about Sharif Jr and his one-man show, he was the personification of the delivery model that became synonymous with the PML-N. But despite all his hard work, he was never allowed beyond Pindi; even though in 2013 he made clear his ambition of working in Islamabad.

That has always been the former Punjab CM’s destiny — power in bits and pieces.

The poor man has finally had to move to Islamabad now that there is no government to head — and he can’t even use Punjab House anymore.

And if this weren’t enough, it appears that he has been left in charge of the party the way the new PTI chief minister will run Punjab — the position is his but not the power that goes with it.

Reports have it that the party’s protest plans are being orchestrated from behind jail bars and Sharif Jr usually finds out about them along with the opposition. Marriyum Aurangzeb knows more about the plans to protest than he does; a newspaper report last week said that during a visit of party leaders to Adiala, the former information minister was given special instructions regarding plans to protest in parliament.

Indeed, his relatives are part of the reason he faces a credibility crisis. Despite having stuck by his brother’s side, there is little doubt of who considers him and labels him a Trojan horse.

No wonder then that the PPP ditched him too during his one shot at promotion — the prime minister’s election.

But his misfortune is not going to end here.

He now has to spend the next five years pretending to run a party that has never really learnt how to survive well out of power.

Opposition does not come easy to the PML-N that was birthed to be in power. Opposition is not its natural state of being; unlike the PPP, which under Benazir Bhutto spent a good 11 years learning how to survive not just in opposition but under severe state repression. The PTI may not have suffered as has the PPP but it too has learnt to spend long years in opposition.

But the Noonies were born with the proverbial silver spoon (of power). And the one time they lost it in 2002, the party was reduced to a shadow of its former self.

The first few days of opposition in parliament have already highlighted a few shortcomings. Kicking up a ruckus on the floor of the house can work well as a short-term strategy but it cannot be the only trick up the party’s sleeve. Opposition is about a lot more — building alliances, keeping the cadre charged, confronting the government outside parliament.

For instance, the PPP did it all post-2002 when it kept Musharraf on his toes, joined hands with the PML-N and signed the Charter of Democracy as well as negotiated with the military dictatorship. The PTI, post-2013, found its own way of making life difficult for the government while keeping its supporter base intact and charged. The PML-N needs to find its own strategy of which there are as yet few signs.

This is perhaps Sharif Jr’s biggest failure so far.

Already there is talk of a forward bloc in the party; the few extra votes polled in favour of Pervez Elahi in the Punjab Assembly have already set off feverish speculation about a breakaway faction. And while there are few chances of it materialising right now, when it does, Shahbaz will once again be blamed.

But along with the forward bloc, there may be another hurdle facing him.

What if there is some truth to the rumours of his elder brother and his family seeking a deal? It’s not entirely implausible. Most politicians faced with such situations have opted to leave the country when provided a chance. From Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif himself.

This is simply the most pragmatic option — for it gives one the chance of waiting till the best time for returning and making another bid for power.

The Sharif family did it in 2000 and in retrospect it worked out well for them; for not only did they return to the country but also to power 14 years after being ousted.

But if it happens now, and Shahbaz Sharif stays back, he will have to deal with a heavily demoralised and divided party — the forward bloc might become inevitable then.

But the rump left behind will still not look up to just him; the exiles will continue to exercise control too. He will have to live with the divided authority. And that is always been his destiny — power in bits and pieces.

Imran Khan may be dealing with the most difficult job in the world of governing Pakistan but it seems as if Shahbaz Sharif has been saddled with the most distasteful responsibility in the country. How can one not feel sorry for him?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2018