Will sympathy swing the Pakistan general election in favour of Nawaz Sharif? Or, has the Pakistan Army already decided it in favour of Imran Khan? And in either event, what would be the takeaway for India?
The tragic picture of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam at the side of an ailing Kulsoom Sharif (wife and mother respectively) says it all. The fall from grace of a family, that has had its moments of glory and lows very often through almost four decades of public life, is so apparent that they cannot but receive sympathy. If it had not been for Pakistan’s vicious Army and its pliable higher judiciary, the Sharifs may not have received as much emotive support of many across the world and within Pakistan.
With the announcement of the sentence, which gave the former prime minister 10 years in prison and his daughter seven years, for abetment of a crime revolving around disproportionate assets, the process is complete, of axing out a prime minister who was perceived to be seeking peace with arch enemy India. In London to be with his wife who is suffering from throat cancer, Sharif has taken the sentence manfully. He displayed much courage with his return to Pakistan and intent to fight politically to retrieve his position and reputation.
Otherwise, London, famous for political and corporate fugitives, would have gained one more South Asian to its portals. Nawaz Sharif has bounced back several times, but is this his swan song and that of the family? More needs to be analysed before arriving at any such conclusive deduction.
The important thing to remember is that there is supposed to be an election coming up in Pakistan on 25 July 2018. Pakistanis we speak with tell us clearly that Sharif’s party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) may lose some of its majority, but no one can stop it from being the single largest party. Pre-election surveys being put out by an obviously controlled media give Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) 29 per cent of the voteshare as compared to 32 per cent for the PML (N). The PTI is not even sure of its national presence, but is forging ahead in the survey, which will probably show it well ahead nearer the poll date.
The going for Sharif as prime minister was smooth enough by Pakistan’s awkward standards. In a society where everyone in power feeds off the state, his dealings would have all been acceptable to the owners of Pakistan, the Army, which has never permitted freedom of functioning to any political dispensation. Sharif’s awkwardness with the uniform commenced long ago. He owed his rise to the position of Finance Minster of Pakistan’s Punjab state and subsequently to the exalted appointment of Chief Minister, to the people in uniform, specifically to Zia-ul-Haq. It was his tryst with the Army during and after the Kargil fiasco which put him at loggerheads with it. It appeared forgotten when the Supreme Court permitted his return from exile in 2007.
A brief resumption of his political career followed, with a full majority in an apparently free election, but it was his discomfort with the dictated foreign policy and internal policy which favoured the employment of radical extremists as strategic assets against India that got him out of favour. With more experience, he was getting bolder. The Panama papers, which apparently revealed some acts of indiscretion by members of his family, gave the opportunity to the Army to get into the act of removing him and setting the course for a third experiment, this time with Imran Khan’s PTI, as the dominant entity of a future ruling dispensation. The choreography for this was masterfully coordinated with the help of the higher judiciary and some street power demonstrated by Imran Khan and his proxies.
That the sentences would be passed during the run-up to the elections may have been unexpected because a sympathy wave could be expected even though a large number of people support the Pakistan Army. It’s a measure of confidence that the Pakistan Army possesses about its role as the choreographer in Pakistan’s political drama that it did not perceive this as a major threat. There are enough reports of PML (N) candidates being hounded by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to withdraw or to not campaign. As is being assessed everywhere, the results are all neatly packaged and ready, and it is only the polling which has to be gone through.
Yet, a degree of caution is being exercised by the Pakistan Army and the interim government with the return of Sharif. Internet access was limited and there was a media blackout imposed on non-friendly channels. No one among his supporters was permitted to meet him.
Pakistan’s civil society has never been strong after it brought down Ayub Khan in 1968 through mass agitation. Yet, it has also never returned candidates with a radical orientation in any manner by which they could form numbers sufficient to greatly influence policy. It’s a different matter that the Pakistan Army has avidly followed the promotion of radicalism with its full usage as a strategic asset.
Given such a scenario, two questions are of interest. First, where does the Army wish to take Pakistan after the elections; and second, what is Nawaz Sharif’s future given that his decision to return could boomerang.
The answer to the first must begin with the understanding that the Pakistan Army leadership is never known to be prudent in its decision-making and hardly ever displays vision. A choreographed election isn’t something that will be appreciated by the international community. Even on the day of the decision of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money laundering, Pakistan was announcing a lift of ban on known radical parties such as Mohammad Ludhianvi’s Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ). Yet, given Pakistan’s strategic importance, no one will bat an eyelid about it. The Pakistan Army called it upon itself by releasing the genie of religious radicalism which came back to haunt it.
After a full nationwide anti-terrorist military operation such as Radd-ul-Fasad, which has been apparently successful, it is now experimenting with greater power to the so-called ‘friendlies’. The combination of Mili Muslim League (MML) of the Hafiz Sayeed led Jamat-ul-Dawa (JuD) riding atop Allah Ho Akbar Tehreek, along with ASWJ, the other face of Sipah-e-Sahaba (the virulent anti-Shia element) and Imran Khan’s PTI, is a deadly cocktail. The Pakistan Army leadership may imagine its full control on this combination if it is voted to power by any means foul or fair, but that control will have a finite limit in time.
Radicals out of the power loop could be a nuisance but when in circles of power, they will spell disaster for the Army. Pakistan’s economy is in shambles, forcing it to borrow repeatedly from China. Its forex reserves are reputed to be equal to that of Afghanistan. The Army, therefore, probably hopes to ride this through and looks at the non-existent potential of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to deliver in a future time-frame. There will be forced bailouts by various richer nations as none can see a nuclear-armed nation of 200 million simply meltdown. A Pakistan in turbulence is bad news for India.
Nawaz Sharif may have drawn the ire of many because of corruption, but his popularity in Punjab may as yet be underestimated. His return to Pakistan leaving his wife on her deathbed is an emotional issue. For the public, the sentencing could have waited a little longer.
However, in politics, there is no rationale; only cut-throat competition. The public may continue to stick to its past propensity to vote with emotion and the results may be different if the elections are fair. If not, then the post-election scenario may be far more unpredictable than can yet be imagined. In the past too, the will of the Army has not always prevailed.
Has Nawaz Sharif, therefore, returned with a plan? It is unlikely, but he is probably banking on emotions and time, and does not wish to remain outside the ambit of scope for another eventual return to power in an unpredictable political labyrinth. Remaining outside Pakistan would have labelled him a coward and a guilty fugitive.
Now, he may yet get away with some sympathy at least in Punjab. Bilawal Bhutto’s statement questioning the arrest of PML (N) workers prior to the arrival of Nawaz Sharif provides at least some indicator of a joint political resistance by the two mainstream parties.
Finally, if Imran Khan’s PTI is given a shot at government formation at Islamabad by the Army’s largesse, what will it spell for India? If it is supported by radical parties, the signs could be ominous. He is likely to follow the Army’s line without much resistance at least for a year or two (if it lasts that long), but will probably go the way of other mainstream parties, falling apart with the masters in the Pakistan Army.
For the brief time that he will most probably be under control, his friendship with India is likely to be on the backburner, all his Oxford education and supposed liberalism having been sacrificed at the altar of the radicals and opportunism.