The Hamza factor – Fahd Hussain


HE is seen occasionally and speaks rarely. While others in the family hog the limelight and push their narratives as an extension of their politics, he prefers to work the backrooms and grapple with the nuts and bolts of the party machinery. He may carry a lower profile than many others around him but with fresh movements on the political chessboard, it may be time for Hamza Shehbaz to emerge from the shadows and take centre stage.

A new story is quietly unfolding inside the PML-N and there may yet be a surprise twist.

Hamza Shehbaz, as the leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly, has spent most of the PTI government’s term in jail. Even when Speaker Punjab Assembly Chaudhry Pervez Elahi would issue his production orders, Hamza would huddle with his parliamentarians in the chamber and only speak briefly to the cameras outside. Party members say he holds his counsel even in the meetings of the PML-N’s top leadership and prefers his father Mian Shehbaz Sharif to present the viewpoint they share.

Over the last two years, and especially since Mian Nawaz Sharif’s move to London, the party’s internal rhythm has found a predictable flow. The flow is, however, anything but a flow. The cut and thrust of the party’s internal politics — reflected in the deliberate dichotomy of the Shehbaz-Maryam equation — has ensured the narrative flows unevenly and often splashes across the boundaries of comfort and trust.

This splish-splash on the surface hides a sub-soil core that continues to pulsate like a healthy heart pushing blood into the political arteries of the PML-N and keeping the body nourished and healthy even under the most unhealthy of circumstances. It is here, deep inside the grassroots of the party structure — the mohalla committees and union councils networked with local grandees and their political groups operating at the constituency level — here within the fleshy folds of this expanding and contracting political organism lies hidden the secret of why the party has survived the onslaught unleashed first by the establishment and then the PTI government.

This has always been — and is today — Hamza territory. And this is where the looming battle will now be waged.

This battle will be led by many generals. As the elections draw near, the party machinery, and the vote bank that fuels it, is oiling its wheels and greasing its pistons. The PML-N juggernaut is slowly gunning into life and the generals are busy gathering their cavalry and infantry around them. From within the PML-N arena, there is emerging a strange clarity from conflict which essentially acknowledges that while Maryam Nawaz inspires the vote bank that fuels the party machinery, it is Hamza Shehbaz who actually runs this machinery.

In recent days, Hamza has made a deliberate attempt to emerge from the shadows and delve deeper into the various moving parts of the machinery that he has helped build — with his sleeves rolled up — over the years in power and out of it. When the entire Sharif family was in exile in Saudi Arabia during the Pervez Musharraf years, it was Hamza — then a 20-something lad — who stayed in the Punjab trenches with the electables and the party workers.

He made news therefore when earlier this month he undertook an unusually high-profile tour of south Punjab. The tour made two different types of news. The first was Hamza’s aggressive public outreach, punctuated of course by private and semi-private meetings with various electables of the region. The second was his very emphatic statement about standing with the ‘institutions’ — a euphemism for the establishment, which in turn is a euphemism for the military — and how this statement contrasted with the position taken by Maryam Nawaz. Long having held his counsel, Hamza was, it appeared, ready to speak out.

The move was well-timed, as it turns out. This week the PPP and the PML-N have once again started talking about the possibility of bringing about an in-house change in Punjab. Last time the PPP raised this option, the PML-N had yawned it away. Now in the wake of reported tension between the PTI government and the establishment, both opposition parties reckon they can revisit the proposal as part of a larger strategic move against the PTI government in the centre. If the proposal is greenlighted by the leadership of the two parties, and if the numbers game is stitched up, there is little doubt that the opposition’s candidate for the chief minister of Punjab will be Hamza Shehbaz.

But there are complications.

If Hamza were to be elevated to the top slot in the province his father led for a decade, the delicately balanced dichotomy inside the party — the so-called Shehbaz-Maryam equation — could quite possibly tilt with the weight of the powerful office. This fact, or fear if you will, is in itself a reflection of the regression in the party’s union as the Nawaz-Shehbaz combination worked well when they occupied top offices in Islamabad and Lahore. The next generation of Sharifs could face their first real challenge were Hamza to find himself within touching distance of the chief minister’s office. But then, the bigger challenge would be for the elder generation to ensure the next generation does not have to grapple with the challenge.

But there’s more.

If Shehbaz were to become the party’s candidate for prime minister’s office, could the party still agree on Hamza for Punjab? Or would the dynastic preference be too heavy a cross to bear at a time when the electorate is ready to progress beyond such conventions. The party could send a powerful signal to its detractors were it to nominate a non-family member for one of the top offices.

However, before this, there is a party machinery to run, and an election to win. With each passing day therefore there are bright prospects that Hamza’s role and influence will increase inside the party, and outside of it, and he will be back in the trenches for the war that draws near by the hour.