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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Oct 2017  The Shahbaz assault and the Nawaz Sharif wobble

The Shahbaz assault and the Nawaz Sharif wobble

Published : Oct 23, 2017, 12:28 am IST
Updated : Oct 23, 2017, 6:47 am IST

The problem — for Nawaz — is that he assumes the boys see a difference between Nawaz and Maryam.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)
 Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

Another week, another attempted nudge out the door. Either they won’t learn or he won’t listen. But on it keeps grinding. Let’s talk about Nawaz.

You can see what the Shahbaz camp is up to. Shahbaz wants Islamabad and Hamza has done the hard work of preparing for party inheritance.

Father has spent a decade running around Punjab delivering the kind of development that wins votes; son has patiently learned the art of party management and constituency politics.

Fun as that may be, it’s not Islamabad and not No 1. So, try they had to. In any case, political regicide and fratricide are embedded in the politics of Punjab. If it was always a question of when, more interesting is the question of why now. The reasons, big and small, are not very difficult to assemble.

Nawaz was out of the country and distracted. If you’re going to poke a lion, do it while he’s far away and unable to respond immediately. Imagine Nawaz had been in Lahore.

Elder brother could have just called over younger brother and let the TV cameras show up too. Shahbaz has an unfortunate way of, at least on camera, cowering in his brother’s presence. Hardly the kind of thing that inspires party insurgents.

The window of opportunity was small. Nawaz is coming back and may escalate his war with what they’re euphemistically calling institutions — the weaker one is just a front for the eternal one, in Nawaz’s mind.

Nawaz and Maryam were indicted — the big one. Indictment was an inevitability — you don’t need to know anything about anything to know they were at least going to be put on trial — but it is still a jolt.

We’re into slightly different terrain now. Nawaz has learned nothing, at least not when it comes to legal strategy. Through all the Supreme Court hearings, there was an obvious question: what the hell are they doing?

Even as Nawaz was slow-walked to ouster, it wasn’t obvious why the Sharifs’ legal strategy was so miserable and shambolic.

A best guess is a combination of arrogance and a conviction that extra-judicial forces would salvage a favourable outcome. Nawaz should have learned by now.

Except he doesn’t seem to have.

The accountability court is shaping up as a virtual replay of earlier proceedings. The miserable and shambolic legal defence at this stage can surely only lead to one outcome.

Historians will be able to figure out why Nawaz and Maryam are being so careless; for Shahbaz, Hamza and co, it’s enough that the other side is being reckless.

Elections are closer. In 2008, Shahbaz dare not even dream. In 2013, he thought he should be invited to Islamabad. In 2018, it’s a near-right, and possibly now-or-never.

Shahbaz and Hamza have to fight.

This business of south Punjab in an insurrectionist mood also fits in nicely. Ahead of an election, south Punjab always has to agitate. It’s the only time they’re taken seriously and it’s the phase in which to win grand promises.

With party leadership also possibly being contested, south Punjab knows it has to make the maximum racket. Maximal demands at this stage could lead to a greater minimum conceded after the election.

Put all of that together and you can figure out the Shahbaz assault and the Nawaz wobble.

Nawaz is weak, with a weak hand and a weak-ish successor. If you didn’t think this is the time to strike, you’d have no business being in politics. But there is the other side — Nawaz.

We’ve already seen he can catastrophically miscalculate, so there’s no point ascribing an omniscience or great foresight to him. But if he’s still fighting, we have to assume he still thinks he can win. Why?

One guess, shared by others close to him, is that Nawaz is not actually trying to recoronate himself. He doesn’t want to be a fourth-term PM.

Instead, the theory is, by threatening to force his way back in Nawaz is hoping to reach a new kind of adjustment: the party will remain his; Maryam will be the successor; and, in return, the boys will back off.

The problem — for Nawaz — is that he assumes the boys see a difference between Nawaz and Maryam. Need, and desperation, may make Nawaz want to believe that, but it’s not necessarily evident that Maryam would be an acceptable replacement.

The other possibility is more vintage Nawaz: the boys daren’t take over and PML(N) will get to the election unscathed enough to win a fresh dose of political capital. That gels with Nawaz’s relatively casual approach before being ousted and his more belligerent tone since.

If you think the boys aren’t willing to go beyond behind-the-scenes games and pull the plug on the system, then why act like you think they will?

There is also a third possibility: the nuclear option. Pushed hard enough and Nawaz could decide to trigger a coup. No one seriously doubts the boys won’t do it if they decide it has become necessary.

The boys both can and — may. If you’re Nawaz, back to the wall, humiliated, hounded, even the right to make decisions in your own family denied — the ultimate insult — there’s always the final option. Let them take over.

Because at that point we’re all back to square one. The countdown to the ouster of the next dictator will have begun. And the inevitable resurrection of the PML(N) will have started. That’s the problem with turf wars: none of the players themselves necessarily lose. Only we, the average Pakistanis, do.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, maryam sharif, shahbaz sharif