ISLAMABAD - The Supreme Court dealt a stunning blow to Nawaz Sharif Friday as it went full throttle and ordered his removal from office apart from initiation of criminal proceedings against the three children, the son-in-law, and Ishaq Dar. Many did not expect such a damning and wide-ranging verdict, which has spectacularly tilted the political equilibrium. After all, the powerful have always managed to escape accountability in the country’s checkered history. And Nawaz Sharif, the powerful and mighty politician, who has ruled over Punjab for over three decades, seemed untouchable until just last year.He had managed to withstand the two attempts at a putsch by Imran Khan, the main political nemesis, during the infamous 2014 Islamabad siege and 2016 lockdown. He managed to smoothly transition out the overarching and overbearing army chief Gen Raheel Sharif. And, when Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, an officer who respects democratic institutions, took the cane of command, many in the ruling party celebrated. A hostile general no more headed the ISI. The brewing controversy over the revelations of Panama Papers seemed more like an itch than a fatal wound. What could go wrong?

But as 2017 rolled forward and as court proceedings wound down, Nawaz Sharif looked increasingly vulnerable. The legal defense was a shambles, if not ludicrous. The political response to the compelling narrative of Imran Khan was meek. And, such was the political tumult over the bruising investigation of Joint Investigation Team that the Sharif family found it almost impossible to recover. No amount of forewarnings about conspiracies, both local and international, seemed to provide a comfort. And, within the corridors of power in the capital and neighboring Rawalpindi, whispers about an impending ouster of Nawaz Sharif started to get louder and louder.

Still, many hoped that the justices would not go all the way. Sharif supporters pointed to the unusual behavior of the bench, lack of legal precedents and the inability of the investigative team to directly link him with the London apartments. 

The fact that a trial had not been completed added to their optimism. But the bench, it seems, had made up its mind from the onset.

There is also reason to believe that the powerful military establishment gave a tacit, if not overt, nod as the court reached towards the moment of final announcement.

And, with one swift stroke, the court has shafted the Nawaz Sharif family. 

While Nawaz Sharif remains disqualified to hold public office in the foreseeable future, it remains to be seen how much damage has been done to the political entity that is Nawaz and its political representation, the PML-N.

On Friday, the party attempted hard to discount any impressions of a crack or a fissure. The challenge is to hold the party together and not let it fragment as possibilities of defections, and forward blocs would emerge. Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who is implicated in a long legal battle and herself risks being barred from public office, posted pictures of her smiling and relaxed father. Other party leaders tried to sound defiant. “We will make a comeback,” Khawaja Saad Rafique said. He taunted Imran Khan as a ‘mere pawn’ in the greater political game. But it is also apparent that the party does not want to adopt a confrontational posture anymore. “We will not ridicule the Supreme Court,” Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said. Khawaja Saad Rafique said the party would respect the institutions. “There will be no chaos,” he added.

As PML-N chooses the next prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif most likely, it wants the transition to happen smoothly. The political future of PML-N hinges on its ability to make it to the elections with infrastructure and energy projects completed. It cannot afford any more disruption.

Shehbaz Sharif moving to the capital does complicate things a little for the PML-N. The younger Sharif has maintained a strong grip over the province and was instrumental in the last general election’s win in Punjab. How effective would be his successor and how would the bigwigs and heavyweights of local Punjab politics rally around the Shehbaz’s replacement remains to be seen.

Imran Khan, the man who started it all, the main adversary of Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, sounded strangely low-key in his press conference. Some said that he made the victory speech with the face of a defeated soldier. There was no exuberance. His voice lacked the usual tenor, his uninhibited body language slightly constricted. Is it that the great Khan – the slayer of Nawaz Sharif – now himself fears being undone by articles 61 and 62 of the Constitution? Already there has been some talk about ‘Minus Two,’ even ‘Minus Three,’ formula in the political circles.

The military has remained quiet all this while. The generals have never been comfortable with Nawaz Sharif and spurned at his insistence on “civilian supremacy.” Furthermore, Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy preferences were an anathema to the core beliefs of the military, which is already wary about the encirclement of the country from hostile foreign powers. They stepped back over the Dawn Leaks issue, but it was only a tactical retreat. In the greater realm of strategy, Nawaz was always an obstacle, a tainted, tarred politician, who had to be done away it. And, nothing could be better when the court itself was too keen to be used as the cat’s-paw.