FOR Nawaz Sharif the battle is far from over. The former prime minister now returns to the masses before the start of the second and more critical phase of the impending legal and political battles. And for that he has chosen the heartland of Punjab, along GT Road, described as the bastion of political power.
It is, indeed, a calculated move intended to galvanise popular support in his political stronghold by playing the victim card. His tenor is becoming increasingly strident as the battle lines are redrawn. There is no more mincing of words about those he thinks plotted his ouster — the deep state. Nawaz Sharif is not willing to go down without a fight. It is a completely different situation than what Sharif had confronted in his two previous ousters. He may be out, but his party still holds sway in both the centre and Punjab, giving him the political advantage he did not have in the past. It is not like an ousted leader braving a hostile state power. Of course, Sharif knows that he may not be reinstated as prime minister, but he wants to defend his legacy and maintain his family’s dynastic hold over power. And for the latter, the area along GT Road is absolutely critical. What gives the former prime minister hope is a divided and squabbling opposition unable to capitalise on his disqualification. His main nemesis Imran Khan now seems to be trapped in a texting scandal affecting the PTI’s campaign against the House of Sharif. The PPP appears marginalised in this war for the GT Road area. Moreover, there is a limit to the perceived powers of the security establishment to manipulate the entire range of emerging political dynamics. The Tahirul Qadri card has long been exposed and that spent force cannot deliver. The former PM’s tenor is becoming increasingly strident as the battle lines are redrawn. Indeed, as of now there is no serious challenge to the ruling party from the opposition forces within parliament and outside. But there are some serious fault lines that may threaten the unity of the party and, most importantly, put at stake the political future of the House of Sharif.
Surely it has been a smooth transition to a new government headed by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a long-time Sharif loyalist. A six-time member of the National Assembly and a suave politician, Abbasi was seen as the perfect choice for the interim period till Shahbaz Sharif took over.
Never considered a frontrunner, he was picked for a temporary job as he was acceptable to all factions within the party. Now it is almost certain that he is going to stay on till the elections following the decision to keep the younger Sharif in the province. The change of plan, in fact, underscores the growing chasm within the party and the inner power struggle within the Sharif family. The formation of a huge cabinet, much bigger than the previous one, also seems to be a move to satisfy all pressure blocs particularly the backbenchers who had started raising their voice following the unfolding of the Panamagate scandal. Interestingly, some of those who in the past were associated with the PML-Q and had returned to the fold before the last elections have also been accommodated in the new cabinet. Unsurprisingly, most of the new entrants belong to south Punjab where the ruling party appears more vulnerable. The huge size of the cabinet also seem indicative of the weakening hold of the top leadership on the party in the aftermath of the damning Supreme Court ruling indicting the entire Sharif family. Predictably, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has not joined the cabinet as he had publicly articulated his grievances.
But his differences with the former prime minister have much deeper causes and also have a lot to do with the Sharif family feud. One of the major sources of tension is the Maryam factor in the party. Her growing influence and her father’s desire to groom her as his heir apparent has widened the divide in the family over the succession issue.
Although Maryam Nawaz Sharif did not hold any formal position, her increasing involvement in the affairs of the government and the party worried many senior cabinet members including Chaudhry Nisar. She virtually took charge in the absence of her father when he went to London for weeks for medical treatment last year. According to party sources, Nawaz Sharif even considered appointing her as foreign affairs minister when he came under increasing criticism for not having anyone in charge fulltime of the country’s foreign policy despite the fact that she has no experience in the field.
Many senior party members even blame her, and the cell she had formed for the media war was sometimes described as her ‘attack dogs’ responsible for heightening political tension and further straining the government’s relations with the security establishment and the judiciary. She upped her public profile in recent months during the Panamagate investigations and the move caused eyebrows to rise.
Although Maryam’s political future too is under a cloud along with other members of the family because of the references against them in the accountability court, there is no indication of her pulling back. Many believe that her insistence that the NA-120 seat vacated by her father should either be taken by her or her mother Kulsum Nawaz is a major factor in the change of plans to get Shahbaz Sharif elected prime minister.
A major concern of Nawaz Sharif’s family appeared to be that had Shahbaz Sharif come to the centre, the chief ministership of Punjab would have gone to his son Hamza resulting in the transition of dynastic political power to the other branch of the family. This power tussle within the family, if not resolved, could seriously affect the unity of the party. It may be politically important for the ousted prime minister to go to the masses to boost the morale of his party members, but it is the family feud that could prove to be his Achilles heel.