By Yanis Iqbal
On June 21, 2021, an Additional Sessions Judge granted interim bail to Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza Shahbaz till July 10, 2021, in the Ramzan Sugar Mills scandal. The father-son duo had submitted bail pleas to avoid arrest on being summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Their immunity from proceedings related to the corruption case will give a further impetus to the internal readjustments of Pakistan Muslim League (PML -N).
Since the 2013 elections, Nawaz Sharif – elder brother of Shahbaz – and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have taken a hard-line position, promoting a strong anti-establishment narrative. With the re-emergence of Shahbaz and Hamza, a moderate politics of unassertive rapprochement has been adopted. Although the overall leadership of the party still lies with Nawaz, the younger brother is now fully in charge on the ground. The tone is markedly different.
PML-N is now devoting its focus to Punjab. With 144 out of 272 directly elected seats, it is Punjab that determines which political party will form the government in Islamabad – though there are exceptions to this rule. In 1988 and 2008, the PML-N won in Punjab but still remained short of the majority at the national level. In both cases, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was able to form the government in Islamabad despite losing in Punjab.
There has been a growing sense of confidence within the ranks of PML-N that they could easily sweep the next elections in Punjab and return to power without upsetting the power equations set by the military. For many among the party leadership, it has become imperative to review the anti-establishment policy. The rhetoric has already been dampened – the target nowadays is Imran Khan, not the military. Some of the party leaders have openly been advocating for mending fences with the military leadership in order to weaken Khan’s government through backdoor dealings.
The moving coordinates of PML-N’s tactics reflect the historical background and trajectory of the party. Blacksmiths by trade, the Sharif family had left India to settle down in Lahore, Pakistan. Muhammad Sharif, the father of Nawaz and Shahbaz, set up steel foundries which brought them regular income. The Sharifs were initially disinterested in politics. However, their refusal to pay protection money to some of the more thuggish Bhutto supporters in Lahore led to their business being targeted and nationalized in 1972.
When Zia ordered Bhutto’s execution, Sharif and his sons gave thanks to Allah for responding so quickly to their prayers. The oldest son, Nawaz, became the general’s political quisling and was made the leader of the praetorian Muslim League. After serving as the chief minister of the Punjab province, he managed to defeat PPP in the 1990s snap elections. That the elections were rigged in his favor by the military is a fact acknowledged by the country’s Supreme Court. State power was now used to reap huge profits largely through securing massive bank loans that were not repaid.
This embezzlement began early and was boosted after General Zia’s sudden death. Elite theft was sustained by an anti-Left and anti-Bhutto politics. PML-N’s leadership was conservative, nationalist, center-right, and Islamist. And it was strongly pro-military. This Punjabi alliance of ultra-conservative traders, wholesalers, shopkeepers, factory owners, and feudal landlords was cobbled together by the Pakistani establishment to counter the left-leaning, liberal forces of Punjabi intelligentsia unleashed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s PPP. However, in 1993, Nawaz invited the military’s wrath due to his growing political ambitions. The generals worked with his rival Benazir to initiate a mass agitation to oust Nawaz from power. Bhutto staged a comeback but before long her second government was dismissed by the military.
A fresh round of general elections, marked by low turnout, in 1997 returned Nawaz to power with a two-thirds majority. He moved Pakistan closer to Riyadh while cultivating close personal relations with the House of Saud. But he made a mistake: initiating a peace process with India, which annoyed the military. On October 12, 1999 he was removed and imprisoned under the command of General Musharraf. Later, along with three-dozen family members, he was exiled to Saudi Arabia, most likely on the asking of Saudi monarchy.
He wouldn’t be able to return until after Musharraf had been removed in 2008. That year, he participated in general elections, but did not obtain a majority due to the wave of sympathy for the PPP after Benazir’s assassination in 2007. The PPP, now led by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, formed the government in 2008. As the PPP government swathed itself in corruption and administrative incompetence, Nawaz’s political fortunes increased. In 2013, he became the Prime Minister.
The army remained irked with Nawaz’s continuing obsession with wooing India, despite the revanchist Modi government in New Delhi. While taking any concrete steps towards building peace with India remained clearly outside Nawaz’s purview, even the talk of normalization was taken as an affront by then army chief, General Raheel Sharif. Thus, a judicial coup was staged – the court declared Nawaz guilty of small crimes and misdemeanors linked to offshore accounts in Panama and undeclared monies in the Gulf, triggering his immediate resignation.
PML-N is following a well-rehearsed path today. To re-take the reins of power, it is trying to navigate the military’s visceral abhorrence for democracy. Navigating through the dark tunnels of Pakistan’s praetorian state is filled with contradictory tensions. On the one hand, PML-N has to maintain an appearance of radicalism to capture the imagination of the masses. On the other hand, it has to remain on the army’s short leash, consistently harpooning the whale of grassroots resistance to the ruling class. This familiar drama is again unfolding before the eyes of the Pakistani citizenry.