The stadium in Pattoki was full of an unorganised mass of people. Holding the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) flags, they uninterestedly responded to the slogans raised from the stage set up for the party leaders. When Chief Minister Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, elected the PML-N interim president on the very morning of Feb 27, started his speech in the afternoon, he neither mentioned the Supreme Court nor the army – not even once. It was by all means an election speech, asking the people of Karachi and Peshawar to vote for his party.
By then, the media had started referring to his appointment as the party president as a step closer to prime ministership. In his speech in Pattoki, he repeatedly referred to the next elections as the election for development and progress of the country. He challenged his opponents, especially Imran Khan, and called him a “liar”. Not once did he repeat Nawaz Sharif’s condemnation of judiciary and the army, clearly indicating that he would take his party away from the politics of confrontation and serve as the new face of PML-N in the 2018 elections. All he said, was “Jab in ko nakala gaya” (when he was removed).
Shahbaz Sharif’s rhetoric of development seems to be in total contrast with the aggressive tone adopted by his elder brother, Nawaz Sharif, who at the Central Working Committee (CWC) meeting in their Model Town residence, once again defied the judiciary and said prime ministers are humiliated and military dictators honoured in the courts. He added his party by all means is going by the book. Only those members were invited to the meeting who constituted the CWC before the July court verdict that disqualified Nawaz as the prime minister. Just in case the validity of new decisions was also called into question by some habitual petitioner in the superior courts.
The PML-N Information Secretary, Mushahidullah Khan, came out of the meeting after the election of the president and indicated a continuity of the party policy even though the party leader was changed. He said that the party’s struggle to restore “justice” and civilian supremacy in the country would continue. In his short statement to the media, he continued to attack the judiciary and the army, and repeatedly mentioned the word “conspiracy” against democracy.
Shahbaz Sharif’s appointment must have evoked among the CWC members memories of the younger Sharif’s cozy relations with the military establishment and his role as a trouble-shooter when the civ-mil relations became uneasy. It was established that Shahbaz was always on the right side of the military establishment and was said to have had regular meetings with successive army chiefs during his last tenure.
“Even General Musharraf suggested to the Sharif family (who were in exile in Saudi Arabia then) to name Shahbaz the prime minister, as a compromise,” says one PML-N leader, who had served in the Musharraf cabinet on condition of anonymity.
Some party members wonder how Shahbaz escaped indictment in cases against the Sharif family, that were essentially about “business dealings of the patriarch of Sharif family, Mian Sharif,” says another senior party leader.
Successive verdicts of the Supreme Court have effectively excluded Nawaz Sharif from politics. Now, he can at best carry on with his rhetoric against the establishment in public rallies and television interviews. At the same time, there is talk of banning Nawaz’s public speeches from being telecast through a judicial order. If that happens, he would be totally removed from the scene.
The ruling party’s central leadership is determined that it would not allow any such thing to happen to their leader. “Even if they impose a ban on Nawaz Sharif’s speeches, we will find a way to convey his message to the public. Technology will turn the tables on them,” says Mushahidullah Khan.
He is convinced the “dominant” anti-establishment narrative of the ruling party would continue, “Shahbaz Sharif has been elected the party president in the past as well… but the leader is and will always be Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif’s narrative is the dominant narrative and it will continue to be so.”
Many party insiders say that Shahbaz Sharif’s style of politics is vital to the party. “In wake of the July 2017 verdict, that ousted Nawaz Sharif from power, there were many occasions when political observers in Islamabad predicted disintegration of the PML-N. It was Shahbaz Sharif who prevented large scale defections within the party,” says a senior PML-N leader.
As Nawaz Sharif’s rhetoric picked up pace after the July verdict, an unease in Punjab became discernible. After all, the PML-N has a history of changing loyalties overnight with the change of guards. In October 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf staged a coup, a major chunk of the party changed loyalties overnight and sided with the General.
Despite Shahbaz’s pro-military stance and the reports of ongoing family wrangling, the relations between the two brothers have never vitiated. This indicates the visible difference of policy is not so much a factor in their unanimous effort to get a second term for their party, by whatever means possible.
Then is this all staged? Are the two brothers on the same page? “There is not much difference between the two brothers… Both are in conversation with the military, in fact the whole political class is in conversation with the military. In public, the military is also showing deference to the civilian authority,” says Saeed Shafqat, an eminent expert of civil-military relations in Pakistan.
Since July 2017, the military has made many attempts to pacify the recalcitrant Sharif with the subtle message that they were not behind any conspiracy to dislodge him from power. Nawaz Sharif, on his part, considers any publicly accepted compromise with the establishment as death of his narrative — a narrative which he considers the bedrock of his election campaign.
As the new face of PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif confronts the challenge of formulating the future election strategy of the party. The strategy that would make an establishment-friendly Shahbaz Sharif the prime minister of the country would be completely different from the strategy which would restore Nawaz Sharif as the constitutional and legal political actor in the country. “Right now they are strategising to come back into power after the 2018 parliamentary elections. Every other issue is secondary. They need to continue with their narrative of victimhood and development,” says Ahmer Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT.
Meanwhile, Shahbaz Sharif has adopted a more confrontational position towards potential allies like the PPP who could possibly support the ruling party to introduce constitutional amendments. “We are more comfortable talking to Nawaz Sharif than Shahbaz Sharif… Shahbaz is more confrontational towards the PPP,” says Qamar Zaman Kaira, President PPP Central Punjab.
Obviously, endeavours to make Shahbaz Sharif the prime minister would involve compromises with the establishment. Whereas efforts to restore Nawaz Sharif as a legal actor would require constitutional amendments in total defiance of the judiciary and, to some extent, even the military establishment. Besides, there might be another confrontation — between the parliament and the judiciary in case the PML-N attempts to bring about a constitutional amendment to restore Nawaz Sharif as a legal political actor.