Is there a rift between Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif that is bound to splinter the PMLN, as Sheikh Rashid has predicted, and enable the Miltablishment to continue unchecked on its one-page path with the PTI? We don’t think so.

There is certainly a strong difference of opinion between the Sharif brothers on how to run the party with a particular narrative, to get back into office. Shahbaz believes Nawaz’s obsession with “confronting” or “opposing” the all-powerful Miltablishment over a range of issues is responsible for the PMLN’s plight. Therefore he wants Nawaz and heir-apparent Maryam to zip up and cool their heels outside Pakistan so that he can cozy up to the Miltablishment and neutralize it. But Nawaz says the Miltablishment is part of the problem of Pakistan and not its solution. He says he hasn’t sacrificed his government three times in the last thirty years and suffered imprisonment and exile to throw in the towel now just so that brother Shahbaz can make a futile bid to become prime minister of Pakistan. The problem is compounded because a majority of the PMLN “rank” (electables) is inclined to bow and scrape before the Miltablishment while a majority of the “file” (voters) is inspired by Maryam and Nawaz Sharif’s resistance to the same Miltablishment. Thus the clash between “Realism” and “Constitutionalism” – which the brothers have been respectively pushing – has burst into the open. Shahbaz’s recent public statements in defense of his narrative have been overtaken swiftly by a Twitter Thread from Nawaz reiterating his defiant anti-Miltablishment position and closing the debate that has plunged the PMLN into confusion and despair. Shahbaz can now opt to revolt and split from the PMLN or hunker down and follow his leader.

But there are problems with the splitting option. For one, the popular vote belongs to Nawaz and Maryam and the Electables know this fact. So Shahbaz’s rump (PML S) may not amount to much. Second, the Miltablishment is not going to prefer Shahbaz’s rump to Imran Khan’s resurgent PTI with which it has done good business so far. Indeed, a split in the PMLN would actually strengthen the PTI-Miltablishment unholy alliance and put paid to Shahbaz Sharif’s narrative.

There are also problems with Nawaz Sharif’s narrative. Why should the Miltablishment allow a free and fair election that returns Nawaz to power when it is his avowed intention to clip its wings and put it out of business? But in the absence of any discernable and credible strategy to put a spoke in the wheels of the Miltablishment-PTI alliance, is Nawaz whistling in the dark? Indeed, if the recent AJK election results are a forewarning of what lies in store, the prospect of the PMLN “losing salience” is very real.

However, some developing factors could scramble such rational calculations. On top of the list are the personal ambitions of the two top Miltablishment players. At best, only one can find fulfilment next year, and his fate or destiny is in the hands of Imran Khan. Any conflict in this sphere could open up space for the opposition and spur one or another option. The second is the crisis of state and society that has acquired unmanageable proportions and could lead to an implosion with consequential options.

The current crisis is both unprecedented and multilayered. In the past, crises of economy or domestic political management were overcome by the Miltablishment either by virtue of large cash dollops from America (for pushing its global agendas) that gave a fillip to the economy or by effecting change of any civilian government through other pro-Miltablishment civilian options at hand. Now such scenarios are remote. The Miltablishment is at serious odds with America on geo-strategic issues, suggesting negative consequences. Equally, the Miltablishment has never faced the prospect of hostility on both eastern and western borders as acutely as now. But with its economic survival linked to the international capitalist community (trade, aid, private investment, remittances, debt payments, exchange rate and sanctions), the China option is not a serious starter. Similarly, with Imran Khan determined to wipe out both the PPP and PMLN, the option of some other popular back-up or fallback party is not available. Worse, the Miltablishment has never before faced acute criticism for its political shenanigans in its home province of Punjab. Sooner rather than later, all these concerns and tensions may erode its will and ability to continue in the current political direction at home and abroad.

Nawaz Sharif says that power only respects countervailing power and it is his aggressive anti-Miltablishment stance that offers leverage in the longer run. On the face of it, the Miltablishment’s successful break-up of the PDM by neutralizing the PPP is in the same vein as its efforts to break-up the PMLN by baiting Shahbaz.

Now the British government has rejected Nawaz Sharif’s application to extend his stay and the PTI is over the moon. But this is a potentially explosive development that raises several questions. Why did it take the UK government two years to decide his case? Will his popularity at home be dented if he resists the UK decision?

Nawaz Sharif has been dragged over the coals in Pakistan for three years but his popularity has grown instead of being dented. So his decision to appeal will not ruffle his supporters. Surely he knew what was coming. If he was afraid of being dragged back he would hardly have reiterated his anti-Miltablishment stance two days ago. He must also have strategized with his lawyers and political advisors in advance of this development. Does he think the court will give him a great and lengthy opportunity on an international platform to make his case of victimization and miscarriage of justice against the Pakistani Miltablishment, government and judiciary when all are in the eye of a gathering storm in the region?

Nawaz Sharif will surely return to Pakistan one day. But on whose terms? A good time for a voluntary return to court arrest would be on the eve of the next elections whenever these are held.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.