Hamza Shahbaz Sharif is looking good. Twenty-four hours before the verdict that will convict his three-time prime minister uncle Nawaz Sharif, and fiery first cousin Maryam, Hamza, 42, who works out every day and sports his standard issue Ferrogamos with a blue shalwar kameez, is about to give his first,Hamza Shahbaz Sharif is looking good. Twenty-four hours before the verdict that will convict his three-time prime minister uncle Nawaz Sharif, and fiery first cousin Maryam, Hamza, 42, who works out every day and sports his standard issue Ferrogamos with a blue shalwar kameez, is about to give his first interview in eons.With just over two weeks left before the July 25 election, and his party under constant fire, Hamza has been keeping a low profile. But now he emerges, as it is finally evident that he and his father, Shehbaz-the three-time chief minister of Punjab province, younger brother and able deputy to Nawaz-are largely in the clear in this land of judicial filibustering and camouflaged coups.With the legal disabling of the ‘other’ Sharifs (who were still in London at the time this article went to print, tending to Nawaz’s wife but promising to return by Friday the 13th, just 12 days before the polls, and expected to be arrested upon arrival and helicoptered straight to jail), the political reality at 180-H Model Town, Lahore-the secretariat of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the only party in the country named after a living man-is clear: Hamza’s time has come. The obsequious army of valets, bureaucrats and advisors around him is definitely behaving like they believe it. But Hamza, a three-time member of the national assembly, and the chief electoral operator of the party, won’t actually admit it.In the PMLN, not praising Nawaz-the 68-year-old who now faces 10 years of jail and another 10 years of political winter as he stands disqualified to run for public office after he’s completed his sentence for “living beyond means”-or elevating yourself is unwise. It’s also a breach of the rules.advertisementIf I’m not loyal to my brother, who am I going to be loyal to?- Shehbaz Sharif, Brother of Nawaz SharifThe truth is, Nawaz is still a vote-getter. His absence from the rallies his party leaders have been holding has been felt. Shehbaz has been trying to keep up the momentum, with his dramatic speeches and rolled-up sleeves, but a recent Gallup poll placed the PMLN only marginally ahead of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), while other surveys upped Khan’s position, creating a lack of clarity, at least in Punjab-the bustling province of over a 100 million which must be taken for any kind of shot at the centre.Importantly, senior PMLN leaders are standing by keenly for the moment when Nawaz will come to their constituencies, pump his fists and thumb his nose at the establishment. They are waiting for his exquisitely-timed salvos-about the enabling of the Mumbai attacks, about puppeteer space aliens (the new code word for the army in Pakistan) and about why he was removed in the first place (the over-memed “Mujhe Kyoon Nikala”)-a routine that has been swelling PMLN support for months, creating mammoth crowds at rallies and sympathetic editorials in the dailies.But now, with the conviction of the two most powerful members of Pakistan’s longest-ruling political dynasty after a 10-month trial over the Sharifs’ Mayfair properties, that moment may never come. Nawaz has been removed from the election map, along with his heir apparent and PR chief, Maryam.Ominously, after the convictions were handed out to Nawaz, Maryam and her estranged husband Safdar, the absence of any serious protests in favour of Nawaz, especially in his hometown of Lahore, while not reminiscent of the distribution of mithai (when he was removed by Pervez Musharraf in 1999), reflected a muted acceptance of a fait accompli: For now, Nawaz Sharif is history. Man of the moment Imran Khan addressing supporters in Karachi ahead of general elections. (Photo: Reuters)Still, Hamza puts up a brave face. In his interview, he borrows tactics from his father’s nuanced playbook, and drops his uncle’s aggressive dictionary-“governance through consultative process”, “the army’s great sacrifices”, etc.-but he doesn’t, can’t, disown his confrontational uncle and cousin, who’ve been creating havoc in national security and judicial circles for months, if not years. He thinks that he’s sharp enough to pull his voters past the post on election day, but he won’t utter the magic words that may get him the establishment’s blessings.”We may have a difference of opinion with him, but Nawaz Sharif is still the Quaid [leader] of the party,” he says. And the feedback I get after the airing of the interview from a close watcher in Rawalpindi, the home of the army: “He’s a good lad. But it’s curtains for the Sharifs.”advertisementHOUSE OF SHARDSAfter being disqualified from office in July 2017, Nawaz had almost a year to manoeuvre. Instead, he embarked on a self-immolating mission to settle scores, and that too with a slighted military. As he went on the warpath, installing a token PM instead of letting his efficient brother take over the reins, Nawaz-goaded on by Maryam and her media machine of trolls, spokespersons, anchors and ministers who reported to her, not the party-created the biggest victim of his own fall: Shehbaz.Broadly tolerated by the military, genuinely respected by the bureaucracy, naturally more media savvy, a speaker of Mandarin, German and Turkish, the works-18-hour-days dynamo that is Shehbaz Sharif was edged out of succession by his brother. As 2017 became 2018, and a campaign of anti-military innuendo became a blazing, non-stop, social and mainstream media army-bashing fest-so much so that serving ISI generals and brigadiers are called out by name as political engineers by the Nawaz machine on prime-time TV-Shehbaz, the eternal good cop, kept apologising about his brother’s rants and his niece’s tirades, remained on the back foot about the spiralling tensions with the establishment, and increasingly lost his backdoor access to General Headquarters, the home of the army.Even when Nawaz grudgingly installed him as party chief, Shehbaz remained powerless against the parallel headquarters run by Maryam. And then trusted aides were picked up on corruption charges; favoured journalists and bloggers disappeared; opposition leaders derided Shehbaz’s inability to stand up to the disgraced Nawaz. In Rawalpindi, Shehbaz was written off as an invertebrate, not ready for a bigger platform that was his to step up to and take. But, clearly, the traditions of the Sharif household came first for Shehbaz: “If I’m not loyal to my brother, who am I going to be loyal to?” he told me in an interview earlier this year.Moreover, Nawaz’s longest-serving deputy and former interior minister Nisar Ali Khan, a pro-military member of the party who was close to Shehbaz, was also pushed out after tensions with Maryam, cutting off a vital link with Rawalpindi and creating a rupture of electoral defections, widening what I call Pakistan’s biggest divide: The Garrison Gap.Duly assisted by his eldest, Hamza-though not the entire PMLN machine (half of which reports to Maryam)-Shehbaz’s only traction now, in a fractured party which is missing its primary weapon, Nawaz, is getting the actual vote.I will bet you my last shirt that Nawaz is going to go.- Imran Khan, Chairman, Pakistan Tehreek-e-InsaafRISE OF KHANBut there is a 65-year-old rock in the way of 66-year-old Shehbaz. This summer, Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi celebrated 22 years of the founding of his PTI. Once termed as a vanity project, a gentlemen’s club, then a cult, and now scorned as the ‘King’s Party’-liberal code for being military-backed-the Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf, translated as Movement for Justice, has become that for its millions of followers. Today, Khan is polling higher than he’s ever polled in any surveys in the past, and given most of the credit for disabling Sharif. But he didn’t just get here on his own. The winds of change were with him.advertisementHere’ a killer statistic, literally. Pakistan’s never voted an incumbent back to power. By hook or crook, by bombing or ballot, by coup or craft, Pakistan doesn’t vote, nor allows its leaders, back into consecutive terms.But around early 2016, just before the Panama Leaks disclosed details about his offshore companies, Nawaz was looking like he was all set for a comeback. He was signing energy deals across the region; he was taking credit for anti-terror operations; he was crushing it with his Kashmir speeches at the UN; with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor in his sights, he had even managed to brush off the flak that came from the surprise birthday visit of Narendra Modi in late 2015, all the while his brother went into overdrive with vote-magnet projects in the Punjab.Disavowed after a messy divorce and an anti-climatic months-long protest, Khan was lost in the wilderness in early 2016. But with the Leaks, Khan came back to life. He tweeted, rallied, protested and repeated his anti-corruption campaign against the Sharifs, swearing their London flats were from ill-gotten gains. First, nobody really got it. Offshore companies? Didn’t all rich folks have them? London apartments? Hadn’t the Sharifs lived there for ages? Soon, ‘Panama’ became ‘Pajama’, a meme for morons. But Khan didn’t relent.Sharif overplayed his hand. After the heavy-handed crushing of a protest Khan had planned in Islamabad in 2016, coupled with a dangerously timed leak to an anti-establishment reporter about the military’s links with militant groups, the tide turned, and the establishment went to battle stations. Enter, the courts, which started the Panama proceedings in earnest. Throughout the first half of 2017, Khan was only to be found at the Supreme Court, scribbling notes, doing pressers, tweeting about the forensic details of the Sharifs’ alleged financial malfeasance. Again, it was a case nobody thought would go anywhere. But dozens of hearings down the road, at the last one, a year ago, I spoke to Khan during the court’s recess in one of the chambers he had set up as his headquarters. Picking on a mango with a fork, he was ambitious, as usual. “I will bet you my last shirt that Nawaz is going to go,” he told me, like it was gospel. His lawyer, Naeem Bokhari, chimed in for effect: “He’s gone! Nawaz is caught behind by a fair judiciary! Bowled by Imran from the pavilion end!”THE ART OF THE POSSIBLEThey’re saying that if Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Sheikh Mujeeb broke Pakistan’s one-party system-and then Pakistan itself-in the 1970 polls, then this is the year that Khan-third-time husband, fourth-time contender, born-again-and-then-born-once-again Sufi-will break the two-party system dominated by the PMLN and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for decades. If politics is the art of the possible, then Khan is the only leader flirting with clear probabilities right now.With federal investigators summoning former president Asif Zardari of the PPP last week (for money laundering), with the assassination of Khan rival Haroon Bilour (member of the Awami National Party) by the Taliban, with the expected arrest of arch-rival Nawaz, and with the army’s plan of deploying the largest-ever contingent of troops for a general election (an unprecedented 371,000 troops inside and outside 80,000 polling stations), even Machiavelli would admit this week is looking like Khan owns it.But there is time, yet. And Khan has been blamed for misjudging before. Maybe that’s where the honourable judges will come to his aid, yet again. Or maybe, come election day, by the process of elimination, none of us will have much of a choice but to vote for Khan anyway.