Of brother and brotherhood: Shehbaz has an alternative narrative to offer


Umer Farooq


After getting elected as the permanent President of the ruling party on Tuesday, Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif made an emotional statement that he could not think of taking the place of Nawaz Sharif who was removed as party president by the Supreme Court but was later appointed as party’s “leader for life” by party the Central Working Committee.

However, his emotional statement could not hide the fact that his narrative of development and progress has already emerged as an alternative to Nawaz Sharif’s rhetoric against the judiciary and military.

In his speeches and public statements Shehbaz Sharif talks about the development works his government has carried out in the Punjab province and the economic progress that this entails. However he never utters a word against the Supreme Court or army – an attitude which is in complete contrast with the rhetoric of his elder brother Nawaz Sharif.

The question that boggles the minds of political analysts and observers is whether the ruling party will go into election campaign for parliamentary elections 2018 with the narrative of development espoused by Shehbaz Sharif or the anti-establishment of rhetoric being championed by Nawaz Sharif.

There is little doubt among the political observers that ruling party stalwarts are intensely engaged in a debate as to what should be the basic features and shape of Muslim League’s election campaign in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Up until now former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s anti-establishment’s rhetoric was serving the ruling party well. In the eight months that followed Nawaz’s ouster from power the ruling party has achieved one victory after another in the successive by-elections for the national and provincial assembly seats in Punjab. The March 3 Senate elections also saw Muslim League emerged as the single largest party in the Senate.

The March 12, Senate elections for the office of chairman and deputy chairman Senate was, however, the event when ruling party faced a defeat. Ostensibly the opposition parties gathered under the banner of six independents from Balochistan to snatch the top slot in the Senate from the hands of ruling party.

This, in the words of a senior political analysts, dented the ruling Muslim League’s image of winner – which is considered so crucial for its victory in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

So the question that is being debated in the ruling party whether it would have to bring changes in its rhetoric in order to adapt itself in the changing circumstances.

So far the narrative of development and progress and anti-establishment rhetoric of Nawaz Sharif have been pursued side by side by the party leadership. Will this continue in the days ahead?

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif was elected the PML-N president unopposed on Tuesday. Addressing the PML-N General Council after his election, Shehbaz said he was honoured to have been chosen as the party president but that no one, including himself, could even think about taking the place of Nawaz Sharif, who was removed as the party president by the Supreme Court but was later appointed as the party’s ‘leader for life’.

“Nawaz Sharif can be considered the political heir of Quaid-i-Azam,” he said. “We are lucky to have been blessed with a Quaid [leader] like Nawaz Sharif.”

Shehbaz said today is “not a day to celebrate” because the world knows that his party’s leader has been “targeted”. “I believe that one day this injustice will be rectified.”

Shehbaz was elected in the General Council meeting and this compelled many of the central leaders of the party to evoke the memories of the latter’s cozy relations with the military establishment. After some unpalatable decisions of Nawaz’s government, the younger one acted as a troubleshooter. His meetings with successive army chiefs in times of trouble were common knowledge in Islamabad.

In the words of a senior PML-N leader Shehbaz was always the first choice to engage with the military whenever the relations between the Sharif government and the military establishment soured, “Even General Musharraf — after the coup — suggested to the Sharif family (who were in exile in Saudi Arabia) to name Shehbaz as the prime minister as a compromise,” said the Muslim League leader, who served in the Musharraf cabinet.

Some Muslim League members still doubt  how Shehbaz mysteriously escaped indictment in the case regarding the investigation into the Sharif family’s business, especially as, in the words of the senior Muslim League leader, were essentially about business dealings of the patriarch of Sharif family, Mian Sharif.

Will Shehbaz Sharif’s elections as party president now usher the ruling party towards a new narrative or development? It is difficult to answer this question at this stage. But this is an intensely debated issue within the ruling party, with many saner elements arguing that the establishment, which has not allowed the Pakistan Muslim League to win the Senate chairman elections, will it allow the ruling party to return to power for a second term after winning the parliamentary elections with the same anti-establishment narrative. The answer is obvious.



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