The decline and fall of Nawaz Sharif

New Delhi: In the doctrine of the Pakistan Army, talking to India means admitting defeat. On the other hand, engaging India in a war, even it means losing in it, is actually a victory of Pakistan and Islam.

The argument is- each time Pakistan loses, it is not because of Indians’ superiority. Pakistan loses as it’s not Islamic enough, and hence it must become more Islamic. And, that is how it has happened after every defeat.

Besides, the only battles this Islamic Republic of Pakistan wins are actually those that it launches against its own people and politicians.

The Army’s battles with its politicians are as old as Pakistan, and these conflicts started even when Jinnah was alive. Pakistan’s Islamic battles started with India in 1947 and have continued since then, in one form or the other.

Midway through the Zardari government, the Generals began to get impatient. The infamous Memogate Scandal of 2011 was meant to destabilize Zardari, but he survived. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington DC, however, paid a price and had to quit.

At this stage, it seems that Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Canadian scholar of the Pakistani origin, was drawn into the battle by the Generals. Qadri, the founder of Pakistan Awami Tehrik and Minhaj-ul-Quran, led a “million-men march” in January 2013. This led to the Islamabad Long March declaration with the government promising reforms and transparency in the election process.

There were suspicions about Qadri’s credentials and source of funding, given his known closeness to the Army. The march was seen as a ploy to scuttle elections that year and weaken the civilian governance.

The current engagement between the Pakistan Army and the Nawaz Sharif government has a longer history, dating back to the time when Nawaz forced the Army Chief, General Jehangir Karamat to resign in October 1998. This was seen by many, especially the Army, as a violation of the Constitution. Then came the famous fall out between Nawaz and General Pervez Musharraf after Pakistan bit the dust in Kargil conflict, 1999.

The Army-Nawaz relations have never been easy since his ouster by Musharraf and long exile in Saudi Arabia. Even in his first term (1990-1993) as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif fancied himself as Fateh-e-Kabul.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan; he wanted to amend the Constitution in order to get anointed as Amir-ul-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful). Nawaz, who allowed himself to be flattered by the coterie of Generals led by Musharraf, assumed that he could win the Battle of Kargil in May 1999 and go down in history as Fateh-e-Srinagar.

The idea in Nawaz’s latest tenure was to test out his early innings, keep him under pressure and prevent his re-election. His activities had already caused sleepless nights and their former protege was getting too independent. He was seen to be getting too close to Narendra Modi, and worse, he threatened to try a former Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf for treason.

The present political crisis that has led to the ouster of Sharif from the current election battlefield, actually began in 2014, within a year of his Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz or the PML (N) winning the 2013 elections.

Pakistanis had rejoiced, not without reason, that democracy was taking roots in their country after more than 65 years of independence. But the feeling wasn’t so in the Army.

In this democratic transition, achieved through the ballot box, lurked hidden devils for the Generals. A repeat of this kind of transition in the next elections in 2018 would surely threaten their primacy and needed to be countered as soon as possible. The famous Azadi March of Imran Khan’s PTI in August 2014, was a month-long protest against alleged rigging of the 2013 elections by Nawaz Sharif. The Army refused to intervene. Qadri, undoubtedly encouraged by the Army, joined this protest march. This was followed by a sit-in strike in November 2017by Sunni Barelvi group demanding resignation of a minister and reaffirmation of the Blasphemy Law. The Army eventually intervened and Pakistan Army officers were caught on video distributing cash to the protesters.

It must have been around that time that the Bonapartes of Pakistan decided to act. The leakage of the Panama Papers, surfaced in 2016, was the excuse Army needed to intervene. The Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz in 2017 from holding any public office for life and later also barred him from holding any position in the PML (N). The latest setback caused by the conviction in money-laundering case, is the decision of the National Accountability Bureau, which found Nawaz and his political aspirant daughter Mariam, guilty of corruption in the Avenfield Properties (London) case. Nawaz has been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and his daughter to seven years, in addition to hefty fines on both.

Although Nawaz put a brave front and asserted he would return to Pakistan from London as soon as his ailing wife recovers, it is not known if he will ever come back. Without him at the hustings, the PML (N) election campaign seems to be going adrift, as his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who has his own prime ministerial ambitions, just does not have the charisma of Nawaz. The media is under pressure, and a number of right wing parties like the Jamat-ut-Dawa, are using the little known outfit Allahu Akbar Party, for nominating 265 candidates, who will be spoilers for PML (N). These parties may not themselves win seats but are bound to take away some votes from the mainstream parties. This will create space for Imran Khan in Punjab, and he would be able to get a sizable number of seats. Nawaz is still considered as a force to be reckoned with but his return would surely lead to his arrest and the consequential sympathy factor is difficult to calculate.

In the past, Nawaz showed resilience when 18 years ago, during the reign of General Musharraf, he was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment and was barred to contest elections for 21 years. But five years ago, all was forgiven, a deal was struck and Nawaz came back to contest and win elections. Maybe he still has the same spirit but maybe he does not have that much time.

There are other imponderables. It is quite possible the Army would prefer the more amenable and vulnerable Shahbaz Sharif as prime minister over Imran Khan. In any case, neither candidate should secure enough seats to act independently of the Army.

Micromanaging and manipulating elections and candidates is a better way to stage a coup than sending in the 111 Brigade from Rawalpindi.

Unfortunately, so long as the Pakistan Army remains fixed on a doctrine that concentrates solely on being anti-India, it is not going to allow elected politicians any freedom to decide policies. It is also unfortunate because under its Army’s tutelage, Pakistan continues to swing increasingly towards radicalism and intolerance. Mainstreaming jihadists and bringing them into the political arena will ultimately rebound on the country.

The idea of political parties, who have thousands of trained, armed and murderous militants as political workers, should normally be chilling but the Pakistani state apparently treats them as social workers. One can already see the kind of statements emanating from leaders like Imran Khan with unequivocal support to the recent Islamabad High Court judgement on the Khatme Nabuwat case that disallows Ahmediyas to use Muslim names.

With barely three weeks to go for Pakistani general elections, the situation looks unclear. It may not be a full stop for Nawaz Sharif but there is definitely a question mark. Whoever wins, nothing will change for India under present circumstances.