The lesson to be drawn by Pakistan and the world in the larger canvas is that Nawaz Sharif may be down, but is not out. That was the signal emitted on Tuesday with the change of guard effected at the helm of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
With brother Shahbaz Sharif, currently chief minister of the dominant Punjab province, anointed to take over as party chief ~ and maybe also as Prime Minister depending on the electoral outcome ~ Nawaz has made it pretty obvious that it is he who still calls the shots.
This without question is a counter-blast to the recent ruling of the Supreme Court, disqualifying him from the office of party leader.
The former Prime Minister has reinforced his position with the title of ‘Quaid (top leader) for life’ and has thus conveyed yet another message to the apex judiciary, now a major force in the country’s power-play.
It is hard not to wonder whether this stroke of realpolitik is a distant echo of Xi Jinping’s elevation to “leader for life”. The paradox could scarcely have been more stark ~ from being disqualified first as Prime Minister and then as party leader, Nawaz is now theoretically the supreme leader of the party.
There is little doubt that Shahbaz will have to function on the terms of engagement set by his elder brother. Aside from the legal requirement, the other compelling factor that influenced the elevation of Shahbaz was the need to maintain unity in the PML (N) ahead of the elections to the National Assembly.
For all that, the balance of power within the party will remain an uncertain quantity for some time yet. Shahbaz does represent another branch of the family. The dominant shadow of Nawaz might arguably restrict his power and influence. The latter’s daughter, Maryam, has emerged as another factor in the party and politics of the Pakistan court.
Yet it would be presumptuous to imagine that Shahbaz will, as the party’s interim head, be no more than a titular leader. Suffice it to register that the country seems headed for another bout of instability, if not in governance but at the party level because of the dichotomy in its functioning. Theoretically once more, the Quaid will wield more power and influence than the technical head.
There is little doubt that it will be Nawaz Sharif who will be calling the shots. It is open to question too whether the dominant section in the Sharif family will readily accept Shahbaz as leader.
The inherent cleavage between the two brothers cannot be overlooked and might well intensify when the court pronounces its verdict in the next few weeks on the graft cases against Nawaz and his family. The plot thickens in the backdrop of the stand-off between the former PM and the judges.