Nawaz Sharif’s ‘last stand’?

In a wide-ranging interview with Pakistan’s most respectable daily, Dawn, ahead of holding a public rally in Multan on Friday, May 11, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif angrily observed, “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the Constitutional one.”

The interviewer was the same Karachi based correspondent, Cyril Almeida, a Rhodes scholar of Goan Christian descent, who had broken the ‘Dawn Leaks’ story in October 2016 alleging that the prime minister and Punjab chief minister had confronted the then director general, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, about inadequate and selective action against Punjab based militant groups by the army.

Harping on the same subject this time, Nawaz implied that Pakistan’s military establishment had turned a blind eye or even allowed “active…militant organisations, call them non-state actors, to cross the border (into India) and kill 150 people in Mumbai.” He also castigated the judiciary for the inordinate delay in punishing the seven arrested in this case. “Why can’t we complete the trial?” He said this in response to a question from the journalist on whether his ‘third ouster from the premiership represented a failed approach.’ Choosing to divert his reply to foreign policy issues, Nawaz indirectly blamed the army for Pakistan’s isolation, wherein ‘despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted (while) Afghanistan’s narrative is.’

Coming from a thrice elected prime minister, this disclosure has been viewed with increasing consternation in Pakistan, especially as it is seen endorsing India’s accusations over the years. Nawaz pointed out, tongue in cheek, that this stance had also been accepted broadly by international opinion. (“President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it”).

All opposition leaders in Pakistan and most media/electronic channels were quick to join a chorus of protests, bending backwards to prove more loyal than the King. People’s Party of Pakistan’s (PPP) spokesperson and former ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman claimed, “It compromises Pakistan’s professed narrative in the war against terrorism and `backed what Indian prime minister Modi had said.”

PPP’s former not very well-reputed interior minister, Rehman Malik, who ran away to meet Asif Zardari even before the blood had dried after Benazir’s assassination in December 2007, strained credulity by alleging that the Mumbai attacks were a Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) ‘sting operation!’ Pakistan Tehrik e Insaaf’s (PTI) Imran Khan, who has begun seeing himself now as the Deep State blessed ‘heir apparent,’ demanded that Nawaz Sharif be tried for treason.

A visibly embarrassed Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), army’s high profile publicity wing, demanded convening of the National Security Committee the next day. At least two provincial assemblies passed resolutions condemning the interview. Ironically, shortly after presiding over the cabinet committee meet on May 14, which dismissed Nawaz Sharif’s statement as ‘misleading and incorrect,’ prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi rushed out to meet him and claimed in a subsequent press conference, not initially covered by the state owned media (!), that he continued to stand by his party’s ousted ‘Quaid’ (leader: Nawaz Sharif). Both Abbasi and Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, now the party leader, claimed in public platforms and later in Parliament that the media in India and Pakistan had mis-reported the former PM’s remarks.

Amidst all this din, Nawaz Sharif stood by what he had said. Speaking at a public rally in Bannu later, he demanded establishment of a ‘National Truth Commission’ to judge if he had said anything which was not true or anti- national, hinting in good measure that as thrice elected PM, he was privy to many more secrets and could reveal more.

While intriguing to some political observers, the timing of Nawaz Sharif’s outburst can be understood if seen in the domestic political context. For the last one year plus, after being deposed as prime minister, Nawaz has been persecuted as not honest (‘sadiq’) nor truthful (‘ameen’), thus liable to disqualification under Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution. Though several corruption cases against the Sharifs are going on before the National Accountability Bureau, so far courts could find only flimsy evidence, that too with the help from army sleuths, pegging the disqualification on non-disclosure of an ‘iqama’ (retainer) from his son’s business venture in the Emirates. Nawaz has been banned for life as an elected politician and prevented from heading his own party.

Some of these recent judgements have been seen by jurists, lawyers and sections of civil society in Pakistan as rather harsh and one-sided, particularly as they were delivered in exercise of ‘suo moto’ jurisdiction, under Article 184, by a Supreme Court bench, one of whose judges likened the Sharif family to Mario Puzo’s ‘Godfather’ equivalent, for Pakistan. Both Nawaz and his politically crowned heir and daughter, Maryam, have been putting up a brave face against this tirade of judicial activism even as wife/mother, Kulsoom, is being treated for cancer at a London hospital.

The higher judiciary could be feeling this heat, forcing Supreme Court chief justice, Saqib Nisar, to tour round the country, asking the administration with almost messianic zeal to deliver effectively on day to day felt needs of the common people. To appear even handed, the Supreme Court recently resumed hearings in the long languishing Asghar Khan case, where a former army chief, Aslam Beg, and a former DG, ISI, Asad Durrani, have been berated for misuse of secret service funds.

Nawaz’s statement can be explained as a desperate attempt by a cornered politician seeking to build public sympathy just before the ensuing elections. His entire platform of public utterances after his ouster has focussed on ‘unfair martyrdom,’ at the instigation of sinister, unseen forces, disregarding ‘the sanctity of the people’s vote.’ As demonstrated in the recent by-elections in Lahore and Lodhran, this narrative has gained Nawaz considerable traction. Though party seniors like former interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, have counselled the new party chief, Shahbaz Sharif, to mend fences with the army and there is talk of impending splits within the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Shahbaz knows he cannot afford to dump the ‘Quaid’ at this stage, as he remains their main vote catcher.

The army leadership faces a dilemma. Though they would want to keep out a resurgent PML (N) in whatever weak or fractured political dispensation that emerges after the end-July elections, Nawaz’s indictment, conviction and arrest in any of the ongoing cases could end up enhancing his halo of martyrdom and vote bank, especially in Punjab, from where the bulk (141 out of 272) of directly elected parliamentary seats will be contested. Historically speaking, elections in Pakistan have not been free from rigging, particularly as lower bureaucratic functionaries remain amenable to pressures from the military establishment. However, under present environs of close international scrutiny and the impending prospect of Pakistan being put on the black list of the UN’s Financial Action Task Force if they do not do enough against groups like Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), any such pressures to manipulate the elections would have to be discreet and remain credible before their own masses.

Apart from further embarrassing the army leadership in Pakistan with the taint of continuing sponsorship of non-state actors against India and other neighbours, these shenanigans may not have much impact on the rather frozen status of relations between India and Pakistan. If at all, the thaw witnessed after the resumption of the Neemrana Track II dialogue could receive a temporary setback in the wake of all the hullabaloo over Sharif’s comments.

Meanwhile, attention now shifts to the appointment of caretaker governments at the Centre and Provinces by this month end, as prescribed under Article 224 of the Constitution, which would be mandated to hold elections within 60 days.

— The writer is ex-Special Secretary, RAW