The problem is Shahbaz hasn’t been able to step out of Nawaz’s shadow.
For small mercies we must be grateful. Once upon a time, there was a delicate dance around whether there’s a purge ongoing or not. No longer.
They want Nawaz out. But Nawaz is clinging on and the cost of ousting him is increasing. And now it’s Shahbaz’s turn to suffer. First Hudaibiya, now Model Town — it’s been a rough patch for the younger Sharif. Why?
The preferred scheme of replacement was relatively straightforward. Shahbaz would wrest the party from Nawaz and a rejuvenated and rebooted PML(N) would take on Imran in an on-time election.
An on-time election being necessary for Shahbaz to line up the party behind him and pivot from an administrative role in Punjab to national politics.
And, left unsaid, an on-time election allowing Shahbaz and Imran time to tear into each other, leaving neither with funny ideas of a runaway victory and what that could unleash.
But interest in the Shahbaz option has cooled. Shahbaz’s potential was obvious enough: he would convince the boys that he could convince the PML(N) to line up behind him, accept a diminished role for Nawaz and, of course, not fight with the boys.
Carving up the state, as it were. Everything the boys want for the boys, the bits of governance left over for Shahbaz and whoever lined up behind him.
If crumbs doesn’t sound like a huge incentive, crumbs at the centre are a heck of a lot more attractive than the whole pie in Punjab.
The problem is Shahbaz hasn’t been able to step out of Nawaz’s shadow. Part of that could be family dynamics, and part a younger sibling’s lack of self-belief and suffocating tradition.
But most of it is likely political: wresting the party from Nawaz has proved harder than was anticipated.
For all the factions in the PML(N) — a south Punjab bloc is evident; there is the recent lining up behind pirs; and some bubbling in north and central Punjab, where a tough fight from the PTI is expected — the party is still a discernible whole. And that whole is still leaning on Nawaz.
The cautious confidence of the Nawaz camp can be gauged from the recent parliamentary vote that Nawaz needed the full party to turn up for. When a significant majority of N-League parliamentarians did, Nawaz didn’t feel the need to thank them profusely or throw some gifts their way.
Instead, he ordered an inquest into the few who were missing. That tells its own story. A story of confidence returning.
But why is Shahbaz suffering the backlash? If Shahbaz can’t wrest the party from Nawaz, then Shahbaz will line up behind Nawaz. It makes no sense for Shahbaz to go it alone and attempt a three-way fight in Punjab between Nawaz, Imran and himself.
But the possibility of Shahbaz dutifully falling in line behind Nawaz further complicates the already complicated original goal: purging Nawaz. And if Nawaz can’t be purged, then the PML(N) — all of it — is a threat.
A threat that Imran may think he’s more than able to handle electorally, but a threat that PTI does not necessarily look like it can defeat. So a little massaging is in order.
If Nawaz in trouble hasn’t caused enough of the N-League to bolt from his camp, then maybe Nawaz and Shahbaz both in trouble may do the trick.
After all, the N-League’s winning and competitive candidates all have a breaking point. It’s just a question of finding it. Here, though, is where the real ugliness and miserableness comes in.
Dismantling the N-League still leaves the question of what to replace it with. At this point, in a rigged game, Imran has to be the favourite.
And yet, there is no great enthusiasm apparent for Imran — neither in the electorate nor among the ones fashioning the restructuring.
Shahbaz’s entire pitch rested on that little detail: Imran somehow not being able to become what everything suggests he should already be — the favourite in August.
The swing vote — everyone else has had a chance, so why not Imran? — will probably go Imran’s way the next time round, but the deficit to the PML(N) from 2013 is significant.
Imran, it is clear, needs help.
So why not prise away the N-League’s right-wing support, fuse together some of the old and the new, rising vote banks on the ultra right, and present it to the PTI as an ally? Y’know, to get Imran across the finish line.
The wily Zardari has sensed this and made the appropriate move. The PML(N) had tried to scoop up chunks of the PPP’s collapsing vote bank in Punjab by trying to drag at least the perception of the PML(N) to the centre.
But the dismantling of the N-League and the rise of frightening options on the ultra right may send the PPP voter scampering back.
Allying with the nutty preacher from abroad may be the cleverest thing Zardari has done in a while.
It keeps the pressure on the N-League and leaves the PPP with options. Options in this game means relevance. And relevance is just about the best the PPP can hope for right now. Which still leaves us with the question of Shahbaz.
Has he really been cut loose? Thrown under the bus before he could force his way into the driver’s seat?
The Shahbaz camp insists that recent events are just a nudge. More get-on-with-it than you’re-done. We’ll know soon enough. Either way, strap yourself in for a rocky 2018.
By arrangement with Dawn