The release of ex-PM and ex-PML(N) chief Mian Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law Capt (retd) Safdar on bail represented a cause for celebration by the PML(N), but was a far cry from achieving the party’s avowed aim of returning him to office.

However, the release is politically significant. The first thing it does is restore Mian Nawaz to the heart of his party. This is important because even though he has been removed as party chief by a court order, he is still regarded by its members as their head. Even though his brother Mian Shehbaz Sharif has become titular head of the party, and its leaders in the National Assembly (and thus Leader of the Opposition), it is still Mian Nawaz to whom the parliamentary parties in the various assemblies look.

Already, in the Punjab Assembly parliamentary party, there were signs of disenchantment, which the PTI was working on, in the hope of creating a forward bloc. One person likely to use this to good advantage would be Speaker Ch Pervez Elahi, of the PML(Q). He was passed over for the Chief Ministership by Mian Shehbaz in 1997, when he became Speaker, and only became Chief Minister in the 2003 election under President Pervez Musharraf. If a forward bloc of PML(N) MPAs was into come into being, and supporting Ch Pervez, it would strengthen his hand immensely in any attempt to regain the Chief Ministership, and if they were to join the PML(Q) that would be icing on the cake. Ch Pervez may well have in mind how Manzoor Wattoo, his predecessor both as Speaker and Chief Minister, headed a PML(J)-PPP coalition, and strengthened the PML(J) by including in it all the independents who supported his government.

Any split in the Punjab Assembly party, would mean one in the National Assembly party, because at least some MNAs would follow their provincial wingmen, who might well be relatives. It might well be more difficult to get that forward bloc to join the PML(Q) rather than the PTI, but especially if Ch Pervez manages to become Chief Minister, it is not impossible.

And where will the PML(N) stand during all of this? Nowhere. It is thus in its best interest to keep the Punjab Assembly party united. It is likely to be the point of entry for the coalition. It might well be noted that the PTI has no real interest in creating one. Forward blocs have had a chequered history, with one problem being that the ruling party may well end up with two leading candidates for its ticket in the next election: the sitting MPA as well as its loyalist, who lost the last time. However, that is something a party subsumes into the phenomenon of multiple claimants where it has the previous candidate applying again and new entries also trying for a ticket.

The main means will be for Mian Nawaz to exert is authority. It must be kept in mind that the PML(N) obtained the votes it did in the last election, despite the disadvantages under which it was put because it not only stands for something, but because it has not been replaced. It stands for many things, but generally, it stands for a more conservative view of life and society. It should not assume that it cannot be replaced. The example of the PPP is there. It started out as the political vehicle for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but he quickly made it the standard around which the left gathered. Originally, the PPP waved the flag, and only when it was ousted by the military did it develop a tinge of anti-military feeling. The PML(N) was meant to oppose the PPP, and until the 2013 election, that was its main unifying principle. Now, it is essentially an anti-PTI party, and as such anti-military. This feeling is enhanced because the military twice ousted Mian Nawaz.

The PPP has now taken the place occupied by the PTI. It might be said that the PTI does not represent the left, and it is true that it does not contain the leftist element. However, that may well be because the military exerts a weight towards the right. A contributing factor is that the collapse of the USSR has meant that the left no longer has a focus around which it can centre. Nonalignment has become as meaningless as being pro-Soviet.

The right has not been attracted by the religious parties, because the right is not really religious in the strict sense. Ziaul Haq worked hard with the Jamat Islami, but it did not become a political force as the PML(N) did. Again, probably realising that the right was not really being attracted to the PTI, the military tried playing the religious card, but beyond adding the Tehrik Ya Rasool Allah and the MML to the ranks of pro-military religious parties, votes were not broken away from the PML(N).

The bail has meant that apart from Mian Nawaz, his heir is also back. Maryam Nawaz is hardly back in politics with a bang, but her hat is again in the ring. While Mian Nawaz is very much around, he does turn 70 this December. He has had a quadruple bypass. His immediate heir might be his brother Shehbaz, who has succeeded him as party chief. But he too is 67, a cancer convalescent to boot. He is not really a long-term prospect.

The long term heir is thus a choice between Maryam and Mian Shehbaz’s son Hamza. The latter is now Punjab Assembly Leader of the Opposition, a position his father once held before him. When Maryam went to jail, it seemed that Hamza had his path cleared, but now it does not seem so clear. Nawaz does have sons, but they seem to prefer to remain abroad, leaving Maryam in much the same position as the late Benazir Bhutto. Having a father ousted by the military is not the only parallel, nor is her position in the family (eldest child of four, with two brothers intervening before a sister). She also has a husband who has come to politics. True, she has brought up her children before entering politics, but then, her father has not been hung. Hamza’s brother has not moved towards politics, but he is available to help him, just as his father got into politics by helping his uncle.

However, the transition will not necessarily be smooth. The PPP, for example, still hopes to revive and regroup, but it does not seem the third generation will take over. India’s Congress Party delivered the Prime Ministership to Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and his grandson Rajiv, but not yet to his great-grandson Rahul. Similarly, there will be much depending on ability in the PML(N) succession, but there is no guarantee that the PML(N) will not be supplanted by some other platform of political expression for the right. There is none on the horizon, not even like the PTI was in 2013, before it replaced the PPP.

It might also be noted that the recent statement of former Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, that Mian Nawaz had scheduled no meetings, and was not participating in politics, highlighted an important factor: he is a convict on bail pending appeal, as are his daughter and son-in-law, not a free agent. Until he is acquitted, the threat of cancellation of bail will always remain hanging over him.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

The bail has meant that apart from Mian Nawaz, his heir is also back. Maryam Nawaz is hardly back in politics with a bang, but her hat is again in the ring.