What are they really up to?
I don’t understand one thing. Given their culture, temperament and political record how can these folks suffer another prime minister, someone not from their family, for the next ten months…that is, until the next elections? How can they endure this?
Power shifts and gravitates towards its real centre. Nawaz Sharif is the PML-N embodied and personified but if Shahid Khaqan remains prime minister until next summer when the election bugle is supposed to sound, decision-making will centre on Abbasi and before taking decisions, major or minor, he is not always going to call Jati Umra for instructions. And while he will remain deferential towards the family he will certainly not take instructions from Maryam Safdar. It’s not that he is some kind of a budding Tarzan but it’s just the way power works.
A Narasimha Rao will defer to the Gandhi family but in time he will always be his own man. The lord and master of the PPP circus ring was Asif Ali Zardari but Yusuf Raza Gilani exercised autonomy in many things, not always dancing to his master’s tune. And when Abbasi doesn’t dance to the tune of his masters in Jati Umra or Raiwind they aren’t going to like it and there will be courtiers and darbaris whispering into their suspicious and susceptible ears that he is getting too big for his boots.
But discounting this element of intrigue I find it hard to believe that the Sharifovs, the smartest political operators we’ve had for a long time, can countenance someone other than themselves in the top seat of power. It’s just not their style and certainly doesn’t fit their temperament. That they should be making appearances in accountability courts and someone else, oblivious of what they are going through, is enjoying the pomp and glory of high office…this simply is not part of the Sharif doctrine of doing things.
So my guess is that fielding Begum Kulsoom Nawaz for the NA-120 by-election in Lahore—the seat vacated by Nawaz Sharif because of his disqualification— is not without adequate reason. She’s contesting this seat not simply because she is a strong candidate and with her name should win the seat as the PML-N seems to be sure she will, but for a stronger reason. I suspect that once she makes it to the National Assembly we will see moves being made to get rid of Abbasi and replace him with Kulsoom Nawaz.
I could be wrong, very wrong, but this is my hunch. Even if it does not turn out this way, there is no harm in being prepared in some corner of our minds for our own Rabri Devi. When Lalu Prasad Yadav had to step down as Bihar chief minister—on corruption charges, what else?—his loving consort, Rabri Devi, who was barely literate if that, stepped into his shoes. It works like this in our part of the world.
Nawaz Sharif hasn’t been able to stomach his departure from the PM’s office. His protesting is more like crying and wailing. He is not getting used to the idea that he has been eased out of power…without any tanks moving, without 111 Brigade coming into action, simply by an order of a five-member bench of the Supreme Court.
They have filed a review petition before the same bench, as the law provides. But they are not such fools as to expect that the disqualification decision will be reversed. They have been power players the longest in our history. Who would know the dynamics of power in our country better than them? The review has been filed for form’s sake, without any serious hope that it is likely to succeed. The real game plan, I think, hinges on moves after the by-election, when Kulsoom Nawaz finds herself in the National Assembly.
We can imagine what the scene will be like—Kulsoom Nawaz entering the chamber to take her oath and the PML-N faithful breaking out into a veritable orgy of applause and desk-thumping. Every time she makes an appearance in the house the centre of gravity will tilt towards her.
But that will not be enough. Revenge and full vindication of sorts will come in full measure only when Kulsoom Nawaz, as her husband’s surrogate, sits in the PM House, receiving visitors in audience, calling the shots and showing everyone that while the surface appearance of things may have changed in all essential respects it was the same. No revenge or vindication could taste sweeter than that.
The PML-N is a family enterprise only up to a point. In essence it is a one-man show, revolving around the appeal and popularity of not the family but one man, Mian Nawaz Sharif. It is not Nawaz Sharif beholden to his family but the family, and this includes Shahbaz Sharif, beholden to him and his public standing. Shahbaz Sharif is chief minister of Punjab not because of any intrinsic worth or because he commands any loyalty independent of his brother’s. His authority is derivative, flowing from above.
The true line of succession in the PML-N is thus from Nawaz Sharif to Maryam Safdar, who was virtually being presented and groomed as heir apparent. But Maryam to all intents and purposes has become a casualty of the Panama affair. For Nawaz Sharif this must have been among the hardest cuts to bear—before his eyes his beloved daughter being stripped of the halo round her head and the mystique being created round her persona dissolving.
But Kulsoom Nawaz remains…the ace up his sleeve or the last throw of the dice. The NA-120 by-election is not going to be easy because the PTI will throw everything it can into this contest. Its candidate, Dr Yasmin Rashid, doesn’t have to win. She only has to perform well for the PTI to look good and the PML-N to look formless and bad. She garnered a respectable number of votes against Nawaz Sharif in the 2013 elections and put up a tough fight. So again this won’t be a walkover…far from it.
The larger picture also remains grim for the PML-N. Around it in a way the shadows are closing in. As expected, the Sheikh-ul-Islam, Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri, has upped the ante by calling for the release of the Justice Baqir Najfi report into the Model Town killings. Nothing could have been more cutting than his speech at the dharna on the Lahore Mall the other day. Like him or find fault with him, there is no orator like him, no one even coming close. The entire speech, not a word out of place, was like an extended whipping of the two brothers. And they were being called out in their hometown.
I mention this only to point out that even if Nawaz Sharif is nursing plans about Kulsoom Nawaz becoming prime minister, the question is whether circumstances will allow this to happen. It may be hard for Nawaz Sharif to endure the thought of having been pushed out of power but it may be harder for others to countenance the prospect of his begum coming to occupy the seat that a short while ago he did. A Sharif too many…that may well come to be the general opinion.