Imagine a king who isn’t. In his inaugural speech last month, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi – the 18th prime minister of Pakistan – called Nawaz Sharif the “people’s prime minister”. He even went on to add: “I am sure that the real prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, will return to this seat.” Even the speaker of the National Assembly says he still considers Nawaz Sharif his prime minister!
But while Abbasi and the rest of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) wait for Nawaz Sharif to somehow miraculously find his way back to the parliament and the seat of the country’s chief executive, the second fiddle will have to play first fiddle and all the lead interludes that go with it. From his first month in office, Abbasi is trying to do just that. Even when the electoral battle for NA-120, left vacant by the ouster of Nawaz Sharif, is a constant reminder that blood runs thicker than troubled waters.
At first, it was announced that Abbasi was filling in for Shehbaz Sharif. But for that, the younger Sharif would have to relinquish his own throne in Lahore — one he has occupied uncontested since 2008 to become Punjab’s Khadim-e-Aala, its chief servant. Eventually, it was decided that Punjab was too important a citadel to be abandoned by the Sharifs.
Under normal circumstances, the obvious choice would be Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, who in recent years played the part of the first lady more than the first lady herself. But Maryam Nawaz is part of the problem, and the League needs a solution.
Enter, Kulsoom Nawaz – arguably the toughest fighter of PMLN. She was president of the party during the arrest and first few years of exile of Nawaz Sharif from 1999 to 2002, she rallied for the party ahead of her husband’s return from Saudi Arabia in 2007 and is now slated to contest the by-polls to take a shot at becoming the second woman to be Pakistan’s prime minister. Sadly, she is battling cancer and will not be able to campaign. This leaves Abbasi to wear the crown. And heavy lies his head.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is the son of air commodore Khaqan Abbasi who served in the cabinet of Ziaul Haq as the federal minister for production. After Khaqan Abbasi’s death in the Ojhri Camp explosions in Rawalpindi in 1988, his son successfully contested from the National Assembly seat his father vacated.
Since then, the younger Abbasi has won all but one election from NA-50. Save his defeat at the hands of the then Pakistan Peoples Party candidate Ghulam Murtaza Satti in 2002, Abbasi has won the seat six times — four of those times on a PMLN ticket, once as a candidate of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and once as an independent. He is also said to be one of the richest men in parliament, with a net worth of billions.
An engineer by profession, Abbasi served as chairman of the Pakistan International Airlines from 1997 till the overthrow of Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1999. Later, he founded his own airlines, Airblue, with the help of his sister. He now proclaims to have no stake in it.
Even with the occasional clamour of corruption allegations around him, Abbasi has largely remained uncontroversial. Unlike some of his fellow party men, he did not engage in the toxic mud-slinging outside the courtroom as the Panama Papers’ case was being heard. He is generally regarded as media shy, an obvious strength when fame and infamy are difficult to distinguish.
This, however, also means irrelevance. Though he has moved to consolidate his position by sidelining Ishaq Dar – a Sharif family member – as the head of important decision-making bodies, Abbasi is neither known for his policy leadership nor his clout in parliament. He also has no experience leading any political negotiations or parliamentary parleys. At best, he is a good manager. This runs the risk of weakening the PMLN’s parliamentary hold. For all his budget allocations for Karachi, building a bloated cabinet and promises of widening the tax net, Abbasi is not a Sharif. In the PMLN’s handbook, that makes him a perpetual outsider. This begs the question: will the real prime minister please stand up?
This was originally published in the Herald's September 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.