As Mariam Nawaz Sharif had earlier predicted in a TV interview, her father Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan and presented himself before a NAB accountability court. He says he does not expect the court to give him justice because the Supreme Court has seized control of the court after rigging the Iqama case against him.

This is a charge Mr Sharif has made many times before. But by reiterating it now, he has signaled his determination to resist advice by some family members, party loyalists and friends to step aside in exile and save the party. Indeed, the presence of Chaudhry Nisar, the most openly disgruntled leader in the PMLN, in the press conference suggests that the PMLN has closed ranks and lined up solidly behind Mr Sharif.

In fact, the surreptitious passing of a bill in the Senate by the PMLN some days ago (when PPP and PTI members were largely absent) to enable a “disqualified” member of parliament to remain or become the leader of the party (General Pervez Musharraf made the anti-law to keep Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto out) indicates that Mr Sharif means business. This would imply that the bill will pass in the National Assembly shortly. It also means that after the senate elections next March, when the PMLN will assemble a majority, we can expect a constitutional amendment in the disqualification-for-life prescription of the SC.

It may also be recalled that Mr Sharif had earlier clearly accused the military establishment of “disappearing” some PMLN party workers during the NA-120 by-election. Rana Sanaullah, Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Asif went further: they attributed the reduced margin of PMLN’s victory to such “invisible” hands. Now it should be noted that Mr Sharif has singled out the judiciary for attack in his press conference but steered clear of mentioning the role of the military establishment in the same context. Again, the presence of Chaudhry Nisar suggests he may have had something to do with a change of tactics: attack the court but try not to antagonize the military establishment any more.

The SC hasn’t been sitting idle either. It has summarily dismissed the Sharifs’ review petitions. It has also rejected the demand to cease overseeing the NAB trial court and prejudicing its judgment. Now it means to consolidate Mr Sharif’s disqualification (given on the basis of Constitution Article 62 and 63 read together with the Peoples Representation Act of 1976) via the NAB court in which an adverse judgment against an accused also automatically leads to his disqualification from contesting elections. This will make the task of reversing the disqualification more difficult for Mr Sharif even with a majority in both houses of parliament after March next year.

The “Establishment”, meanwhile, is sanguine with the outcome of its machinations so far. It has made sure that come elections next year Mr Sharif stands to lose a significant chunk of his right wing conservative vote bank to a combination of extreme right wing religious parties (the PMLN lost 13,000 votes or 13% of votes cast to two newly formed parties), thereby giving the PTI a fighting chance in the two-way race for the Punjab heartland. The Establishment felt the need to cobble the Milli Muslim League (ex-jihadis who are estranged from Mr Sharif’s pro-peace-with-India policy) and the Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan of Barelvis (angry at the execution of Mumtaz Qadri by the Sharif regime) for two reasons: to provide an umbrella of legitimacy to internationally banned jihadi organisations and their leaders in order to retain leverage in the Establishment’s anti-India strategic policies; and to stop the slide of the PMLN under a “reformed” Nawaz Sharif towards a pro-liberal centrist agenda that threatens to mop up disenchanted liberal elements of the PPP in decline and revitalize itself as a national party.

But there may be a snag in this scenario. That relates to the fate of Imran Khan before the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court. The Establishment wants Imran Khan to compete vigourously with Nawaz Sharif and whittle down his vote bank so that he doesn’t win a majority to form the next governments in the Punjab and Islamabad and rise anew to challenge its hegemony. But the SC must worry about the factual evidence against Imran Khan which is greater than in the case of Nawaz Sharif who had to be hooked on the basis of a flimsy Iqama instead of a dubious money trail. If it disqualifies Imran Khan, it will end up screwing the PTI royally – unlike the PMLN which has three decades of roots in the Punjab and can put up a fight even without voting for Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. The PTI is nothing without Imran Khan’s charismatic presence at the helm. If this happens, the Establishment’s political plans will come a cropper.

We should know soon enough which way the wind is going to blow. But whichever way it blows, it’s going to be a howler.

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.