Shehbaz Sharif | Rise of the brother

Pakistan’s Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif is on the cusp of ousting PM Imran Khan’s government from Islamabad

Updated - April 03, 2022 02:05 pm IST

Published - April 03, 2022 12:30 am IST

On the night of Pakistan’s general election in June 2013, two men sat side-by-side on a sofa watching the results coming in on TV at their party office in Lahore’s Model Town — one was the Prime Minister to-be (for the third time) Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, who would become the Chief Minister of Punjab (also for the third time). The victory was a bittersweet moment for both, as their youngest brother Abbas had died just a few months before that. The bonding between the men, and the implied hierarchy that made Shehbaz Sharif, the younger sibling, deferential to Mr. Nawaz was apparent, and some even suggested, in whispers, that Prime Minister Nawaz would choose an opportune moment to step down, and allow his brother to take over his role.

That moment never came, as Nawaz Sharif’s tenure became shaky just three years later, after the “Panama Papers” were published worldwide, allegedly detailing accounts and properties held by the Sharif family. A year later, in July 2017, the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif from holding public office, and he appointed another Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi in his place, not his brother as had been widely expected, leading to some conjecture that the bond between the two had frayed. Insiders spoke of a rift between the brothers over which of their children — Nawaz’s daughter Maryam Nawaz or Shehbaz’s son Hamza Sharif — would lead the party in Punjab as the Chief Minister candidate.

“Shehbaz Sharif has always been ambitious and he sees this as his last chance to become Prime Minister. In the past, his brother was always ahead of him and he now fears that his niece Maryam may overtake him. There are severe rivalries within the Sharif family, and his decision to push ahead now is about that, for himself and for his son in Punjab. In addition, [PPP-chief] Zardari has for his own reasons supported him at this moment, and he may not do so in the future,” says Pakistan’s Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood of Mr. Shehbaz’s decision to move a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan last month.

Long-time associate of the Sharifs, former journalist and now PML-N Senator Mushahid Hussain disagrees, calling Mr. Shehbaz a Nawaz “loyalist through and through”. Mr. Shehbaz has been known for following his more famous brother through thick and thin, in exile in Saudi Arabia after General Musharraf unseated him in a coup in 1999, and even in jail, where they served time on corruption cases they said were politically motivated.

Loyalty to Nawaz

“Shehbaz was offered the prime ministership on a couple of occasions in the past, in the 1990s, as well as in this year, when there were problems between Nawaz and the military establishment, but he declined, because, for him loyalty to his brother is a paramount trait,” Mr. Hussain told The Hindu.

Born in 1951, Mr. Shehbaz studied at Government College Lahore and joined the family-owned Ittefaq Group that dealt in steel and iron. The family has always come first with the Sharifs, and even the Ittefaq group was founded in 1906 by Mian Muhammad Sharif and six brothers, with all family members living close to each other. Later, the Sharifs moved to their grand Raiwind estate on the outskirts of Lahore, each brother lived in a palatial home, but within walking distance of each other, and their children all grew up together. While Mr. Nawaz was seen as the more serious among the two, Mr. Shehbaz is known for his marriages, including to activist and author (My Feudal Lord) Tehmina Durrani, and for his love of singing. In his first tenure as the Chief Minister of Punjab (1997-99), Mr. Shehbaz was known for a “road expansion and underpass-overhead building frenzy”, including, according to the Dawn newspaper, a flyover known as the “Honey Bridge”, named so as it would speed up his journey to his wife to-be’s home. A cancer survivor, he is also known for a disciplined life, preferring daily swims and early dinners, according to his associates.

Mr. Shehbaz, who spent some years at the Ittefaq group, is seen as a businessman-politician, and has over the years been seen as more able to make political compromises when needed, with both the military establishment and other political parties. He is also known to have facilitated back channel talks with India for his brother, reportedly using his business connections with Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal.

In 2018, Mr. Shehbaz was made president of the PML-N with his brother’s blessings, who now lives in London. The PML-N lost national elections and the Punjab Assembly, and Mr. Shehbaz moved into a role as leader of the Opposition, alleging that the elections had been rigged. As a result, Mr. Shehbaz has spent much of Mr. Khan’s tenure working on ousting the government corralling together the Pakistan Democracy Movement (PDM), and now testing his fortunes for a position that has eluded him thus far, and perhaps, finally out of his brother’s shadow.

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