‘To be or not to be’

  • The Sharifs’ conundrum

“To be or not to be?”, the opening phrase uttered by Prince Hamlet sums up PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) president Shahbaz Sharif’s predicament. In William Shakespeare’s seminal play by the same name, Hamlet contemplates death and suicide, bemoaning the pain and unfairness of life, but acknowledging that the alternative might be worse.

Our present day prince Sharif is faced with a somewhat similar conundrum. His heart is not in Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s dharna, march, or whatever the cleric prefers calling it. The PML-N president unlike his elder brother and mentor Nawaz Sharif is simply not cut out for confrontational politics.

But the incarcerated Nawaz Sharif still rules the roost and calls the shots. Shahbaz Sharif might be nominally lording over the party but veto power still rests with his brother.

Now Sharif has put it in writing as well as while speaking to the media outside an accountability court on Friday-where he was presented by NAB (National Accountability Bureau)-that his party fully supported the Maulana’s Azadi march. Shahbaz citing backache conveniently absented himself from “an all-important” meeting a day earlier with his elder brother where a formal announcement on the matter was expected.

Surprisingly, the elder Sharif’s son in law, Captain (Rtd) Safdar turned up at the party meeting and announced on behalf of his father-in-law that the PML-N would participate in the planned march. But the PML-N supremo later disclosed that he had already instructed his brother to announce the decision to the media.

Apparently Shahbaz on Wednesday in the party meeting had quite eloquently put forth his point of view opposing the march. He is of the view that the march, even if it took place without any tail winds from the ubiquitous establishment, is bound to fail. What will we do the day after, was the question he posed to the participants.

But on the other hand the PML-N president feels that confronting the deep state at a time when Khan has their full backing will be a herculean blunder

Sharif has reportedly remarked that despite his reservations about the march he cannot even for a minute contemplate defying his elder brother. He would rather quit politics than taking such a course, he added.

This is the crux of the matter. It is Nawaz Sharif who commands the rump of support in the party. Shahbaz Sharif draws his support from him. Doing politics without him will be committing political suicide.

But on the other hand the PML-N president feels that confronting the deep state at a time when Khan has their full backing will be a herculean blunder. Conversely the PML-N patron in chief sitting in jail thinks otherwise.

After all what has he got to lose? Like the Maulana he wouldn’t be too unhappy if the democratic project collapses as a result of possible chaos created in the country and popular discontent manifests itself on the streets.

The PML-N as its name suggests is Nawaz Sharif not his younger brother. The Zia era establishment midwifed the party to serve as a bulwark against the PPP.

In the nineties, Sharif through his right wing virulently anti -PPP narrative and his younger sibling though sheer hard work and tenacity successfully eroded the PPP’s support base in Punjab. But since then the three-time former prime minister has become a born-again anti-establishment politician of sorts.

He is for civilian control over all institutions including the powerful Army. But critics contend in reality, this is his obsession for personal dominance as prime minister. Ironically over the years a lot of his party men have also adopted politics of defiance and resistance.

But not Shahbaz Sharif; he remains a pro-establishment politician.

In 2017 when the Supreme Court removed Sharif from office, it was Shahbaz and his friend Nisar Ali Khan who cautioned him not to adopt a confrontationist posture against the military leadership. They advised him to quietly drive from the federal capital via the motorway to his Raiwind abode in Lahore.

But the ousted prime minster supported by some of his hard-line advisors decided to take the GT (grand trunk) route in the form of rallies. Sharif travelled to Lahore amidst speeches asking the loaded question: mujhey kyoon nikala? (Why was I ousted)?

Later when the former prime minister leaving his ailing wife landed from London in Lahore on the eve of the 2018 general elections, Shahbaz Sharif failed to turn up at the airport being ostensibly delayed owing to the traffic caused by rallies to receive Sharif. Most allege that the no-show was deliberate.

Despite Shahbaz’s dovish line on the march, after NAB ‘re-arresting’ Nawaz Sharif in a fresh case, there is no option for him but to go along with the party’s supremo to fully participate in the march. Taking Sharif’s physical remand when he is already serving a jail sentence in Kot Lakhpat Jail clearly smacks of vendetta. The timing stinks.

It seems like a patent attempt by the government to keep Sharif away from even having any indirect consultations with his party-men Shahbaz Sharif included. Interestingly, as stated by his lawyer, the JIT (joint investigation team) had already investigated him in the Chaudhry Sugar Mills case in which he claimed that his client is not even a shareholder.

Sharif in his statement alleged that the fresh case against him was politically motivated and that NAB was ‘Sharif and opposition specific’ created by former dictator Pervez Musharraf for this very purpose.

It seems now that the PML-N pushed to the wall has no option but to fully participate in the march. And Shahbaz Sharif despite his reservations and poor health will have to go long if he wants to remain politically relevant.

The PPP till now has adopted an ambivalent attitude towards the Maulana and his march. The party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari despite fully supporting the march is loath to actually participate in it.

NAB’ sword of Damocles is hanging over Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah’s head. Hence the PPP owing to vindictive politics of the PTI government might also be forced to join the Maulana’s bandwagon.

The ANP (Awami National Party) has also announced to chip in. Now there is a distinct possibility that thanks to PTI’s myopic policies, effectively a grand opposition might be in the offing.

In the meanwhile Khan apart from the threat of more state suppression against the opposition is using exogenous methods to deal with the Maulana. The Saudi ambassador after meeting the JUI-F chief has rushed to Riyadh. The prime minister is also due to visit Saudi Arabia soon.

PM Khan has also instructed his aides to keep channels of communication open with JUI-F, suggesting that he really is quite nervous about the Maulana’s impending ‘million march’ or perhaps he has been made to engage with the latter.

Either way it is a departure from his otherwise aggressive uninterrupted agenda to put pressure on the rest of the opposition through cases and arrests.

But the Maulana is bent upon on executing his putsch to Islamabad. Khan, thanks to his flawed and vindictive policies, is unwittingly providing him the enabling environment.

For the JUI-F chief, stepping back is no longer an option. Quoting again from Shakespeare, in his play Macbeth (an excellent study on how power corrupts) Macbeth soliloquies: “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

This is the dilemma being faced by the Maulana and increasingly so the opposition. Perhaps it equally applies to Khan?