The "Catch-22 Return" for Shahbaz Sharif

Eversince the April 7th Supreme Court judgment decreeing that Shahbaz Sharif can return to Pakistan according “to the law of the land”, there are endless speculations about the London-based former Chief Minister’s return. The establishment has opted to not strike any deal with Shahbaz. It maintains that Shahbaz has no legal cover against deportation. Upon arrival he will immediately be deported to Saudi Arabia. The latest word is that Shahbaz will return to Pakistan by May 10 after cleared by his older brother, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

This announcement notwithstanding it is hard to imagine that Shahbaz will be at ease with this decision. Ever since his December 2000 reluctant departure, under the Sharif family’s deal with the establishment, he has been eager to return. Yet he has also appeared mindful of the fact that the largely establishment-dominated power equation would make his return to Pakistan politically feasible only in the absence of the establishment’s opposition to his return. Violent political rallies are virtually non-existent in today’s mainstream politics. PML(N)’s political strength anyway cannot boast of active street power like the MQM or even MMA.

Yet for him the dilemma is real. He must fear political wilderness and finally oblivion if the establishment’s current political re-engineering continues. Shahbaz however would have also wanted a political truce. An unlikely scenario at present. From the Saudis the government has complete assurance that a deported Shahbaz will be received by them, in accordance with the December 2000 deal.

Currently the establishment is busy executing its two party plan minus the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. Major chunks from the Sharifs PML broke away grouping around the establishment and the Chaudaries. The establishment has also ‘successfully’ managed the first-ever politically consequential PPP break-up. Infact desertions continue. Also the LFO has constitutionally ruled out return to power of the two-time Prime Ministers. Given the current political and power scenario, challenging this clause will remain unchallenged.

The re-making of the PML is underway. General Parvez Musharraf leads the task. He is unwilling to let anyone of the ‘big three’ return and undermine the ‘political context’ he believes he now controls. Re-entry of Shahbaz is viewed as ‘unsettling’ the expanding PML(Q) platform with Chaudary Shujaat at its political core. The President has publicly let this be known during his address to the Punjab group of the PML(Q). The offer to Asif Zardari that he may leave for Switzerland to defend himself before the Swiss Courts is also an extension of the establishment’s ‘no big three’ agenda.

Meanwhile incase Shahbaz would have delivered the PML(N) to the establishment’s fold and joining up with the PML(Q) some political understanding for the future would have been possible. But the problems are two. One what would be the quid pro quo for the Sharifs ? Would they be willing to sign off their political capital for a future IOU ? Unlikely. Two, while having functioned as a successful administrator in Punjab, by-passing his party MNAs and MPAs, Shahbaz apparently remains second to Nawaz Sharif in popularity within the party. The older brother will be the ultimate decider within the party and the younger brother will comply. Hence Shahbaz cannot at present ‘deliver’ what the establishment may want from him to ruling out any new ‘deals.’

Shahbaz also knows there is a supra-legal dimension to his return. It flows from the Saudi-planned ‘deal’ negotiated by his sister-in-law Kulsoom Nawaz , agreed upon by his father and older brother and signed by everyone including Shahbaz. The deal, involved the immediate departure of the Sharif clan, barring Shahbaz’s son Hamza to Saudi Arabia, their undertaking to not return before 10 years and payment of 50 Crores the State. Shahbaz, under family pressure left reluctantly. He nevertheless understood ,the Jeddah-bound Sharifs stood in direct contrast with the hung Bhuttos and the long incarcerated Zardari. For Benazir however, as a mother of three minors and fearing imprisonment upon return, understandably the pressures were different.

Determined to return to Pakistani politics Shahbaz remained a cautious opponent of the Musharraf regime. The regime and Shahbaz avoided ‘pushing each other to the edge.’ Shahbaz resisted anti-government oratory. Instead he talked of national reconciliation, national challenges, PML(N)’s mistakes and role of the army etc. . The government too allowed his Jeddah-based family to visit Pakistan and let his son Hamza on the Exit Control List to visit his ill father in New York. PML(Q) President Chaudary Shujaat also lobbied with the establishment that the family be permitted to visit. However Nawaz Sharif’s interview to a local daily on the Kargil affair, in June 2003 while General Musharraf was visiting the United States, led the government to harshly order exit of Shahbaz’s wife and daughters.

Since 2001 NAB too was ‘gentle’ in prodding Hamza to pay what his aunt ahd committed to the Pakistan military negotiators. General Musharraf personally opposed selling of the family property in Raiwind to recover the remaining amount. A non-political truce on ‘good behavior’ basis ensued. However in the post-judgment phase sections of the establishment appears to have departed from the previous policy of ‘live and let live’ on the Hamza front. General Musharraf himself however was ‘favorably examining’ a request from Shabaz’s family to visit Pakistan in May to get his two daughters married.

While the Sharif clan set up a steel factory in Saudi Arabia, Shahbaz has remained focus on returning. Yet the power scene at home has not been inviting. Contrasting with Shahbaz’s concern is General Musharraf’s confidence. He knows political rhetoric of other opposition parties notwithstanding none are likely to actively rally around the PML(N) to demand Shahbaz’s return. To prevent his deportation MMA and PPP are unlikely to take to the streets. Some may rather see him out than in. PML(N), even with MMA support, can at best generate noticeable commotion and criticism within the parliament and in the media circles. Internationally PML(N) would mobilize opinion within Human Rights and pro-democracy forums. The government will recall the ‘mother-of-all-deals.’ And after Javed Hashmi’s indictment the PML(N) knows the government’s disregard for international opinion and firm legalities.

Musharraf knows that within the international context the forces that matter for Pakistan he remains everyone’s ‘best bet’ for Pakistan. He himself ‘calls the shots’ on how Pakistan’s power and political scene be ‘engineered.’ Playing his ‘power cards’ close to his chest Musharraf allows no outside interference.

Meanwhile Shahbaz, would have opted for a dignified return to Pakistan under a ‘cooperative’ formula acknowledging the political ground realities covering both Musharraf and Chaudary Shujaat. But at this juncture, despite his acknowledgement of Shahbaz’s competence, Musharraf does not view him as ‘political capital’ for the establishment managed set-up. Not until after another round of Local Bodies and 2007 national elections. But for Shahbaz these plans may spell his own political irrelevance. The current establishment-dictated political ideology of “pragmatism” is being embraced by an increasing number. Establishment supported replacements come easy. By all accounts in Punjab Chief Minister Parvez Elahi is efficiently administering the province.

These realities may compel Shahbaz to take the plunge and arrive in Pakistan. Although only to be deported to Saudi Arabia where his political activities will be greatly restricted. Yet Shahbaz may see his attempted return to Pakistan as necessary to reclaim political space and restore political credibility he dented as even the reluctant partner to the Sharifs-Establishment deal. The irony is that Shahbaz Sharif, one of the most competent Chief Ministers in Pakistan’s history, in attempting to clean up his political image could find himself further marginalized in Pakistani politics. But this is a risk he seems set to take.