Sharif’s imprisonment will not end his political career and will outlast the retirement of generals and colonels who plotted his downfall.
Nawaz Sharif’s decision to return to Pakistan and go to prison marks a new phase in the country’s politics. Sharif had been a creature of the establishment in the first phase of his political life and only a cautious opponent of the establishment since 1993. He has now become the first Punjabi politician to defy the predominantly Punjabi establishment in ways previously associated with leaders of Pakistan’s smaller ethnic groups.
The subject of this article is not Sharif’s flaws or merits, but the future of Pakistan’s politics. Pakistani politicians have often allowed the military-led establishment to maintain a façade of civilian democratic rule while calling most of the shots.
Sharif’s decision to accept prison instead of staying in exile shocked the establishment, which had assumed that the fear of prison would be enough to take Sharif out of politics. After all, the old Sharif had accepted the option of going into exile after being toppled from power by the 1999 military coup. That decision helped avoid prolonged confrontation and enabled the survival of General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime.
Sharif’s return this time forced the establishment to unleash repression on a large scale, ending the veneer of benign authoritarianism. Hundreds of Sharif supporters were arrested pre-emptively. His 85-year-old mother was detained. Traffic into Lahore, the capital of Punjab, was virtually shut down.
Television coverage of Sharif’s return and the planned reception was severely censored. Mobile telephone networks were interfered with to deny people access to social media. And the flight of an international airline carrying the former prime minister from Abu Dhabi to Lahore was delayed, amid efforts to divert it, to deny even the slightest visual contact between Sharif and his supporters.
For millions of Pakistan Muslim League (PML) voters, Sharif’s conviction on corruption charges is just not credible. But for many others who were not his supporters before and recognised his flaws, he is now the symbol of defiance to an arrogant and overbearing establishment.
“Who are the judges and generals to decide who will represent us? If our elected leaders are corrupt, we want the right to vote them out” seems to be the dominant sentiment that transcends feelings for Sharif or his family.
Pakistan’s failure to evolve as a democracy under the rule of law with strong institutions and its governance by a civil-military oligarchy creates an air of permanent political crisis that is likely to be heightened by Sharif’s imprisonment.
Members of the oligarchy jockey for power through intrigue, rumour and whispering campaigns. Popular politicians are kept out of the political arena or forced to make compromises that subordinate them to military officers and civil servants. Almost every Pakistani head of state and government since independence in 1947 has been imprisoned, assassinated, executed or removed from power in a military coup or a palace coup backed by the military.
In the country’s unfortunate history, governments have sometimes been voted into office but none have been voted out. The country’s generals and their offspring feel comfortable only with technocrats and civil servants who have grown up in the Government Officers’ Residences (GOR) and cantonments.
An entire class of Pakistanis resents ‘the riff-raff’ that votes and believes in ‘the national narrative’ that puts the army on a pedestal, amid many myths about Pakistan’s origins and place under the sun.
As early as 1954, General Ayub Khan wrote a memo titled ‘A short appreciation of present and future problems of Pakistan’, which laid out a top-down agenda for forging a Pakistani nation through the leadership of the existing apparatus of the state. While it lays out in detail the administrative measures necessary for making Pakistan “ a sound, solid and cohesive nation…able to play its destined role in world history”, it has no reference whatsoever to the will of the people or to political participation.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, Ayub Khan’s paradigm of considering the military as the ultimate decision-makers and the virtual raison d’être of Pakistan has persisted. Every now and then a politician has gained popularity but the military has been able to use his or her weaknesses to its advantage. Thus, ‘Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was intolerant of opposition,’ ‘Benazir Bhutto presided over a corrupt and incompetent administration,’ and ‘Nawaz Sharif is a creature of the establishment who loves the comforts of life.’
But after four coups and many more indirect interventions, Pakistan’s establishment is far from delivering the stability and progress it seeks to deliver through its machinations. It is unlikely to succeed this time either.
Politics is often described as the art of the possible and governance is considered a function of politics. Good governance means the art of administering the state successfully within the parameters of attainable and realistic objectives. Anyone trying to set everything right at the same time might be pursuing a dream. Such pursuits can neither be termed as practical politics nor can they be the basis of good governance.
Moreover, military officers are used to dealing with regimented minds. The troops under their command ask no questions while obeying orders. When called upon to command civilians, military men find it difficult to deal with constant debates and disagreements as well as the numerous options put forward with equal eloquence. The diversity of civilian issues is the most important characteristic of running a government. Pakistan’s soldier-rulers and their civilian dependents refuse to learn the lesson that the profession of soldiering provides insufficient training for the task of governance.
This time, the script for ‘saving Pakistan’ differed little from previous such efforts. It was expected that once the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif, his support would evaporate and his party would desert him. Then the establishment’s favorites, including former cricketer Imran Khan (who is described since his Oxford University days as ‘Im the Dim’) were expected to win an election widely seen as free and fair. Pakistan was to live the happily ever after.
But Sharif’s party did not desert him and the few locally influential leaders who did had to be coerced in manners that could not be concealed. The army and the ISI decided to deal with the media in a heavy-handed way, with specific instructions about whom to favour and whom to oppose in the election campaign. This, too, could not remain secret.
Other exertions of the military-intelligence combine on behalf of its preferred candidates included calling up candidates with vote-banks to leave the PML, Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), or the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and join the PTI or other smaller pro-establishment factions. Insolent politicians faced corruption charges and some were even disqualified while the obedient ones were protected and promised rewards.
In cantonment life, an adverse order from a superior officer ends or diminishes careers but in politics repression and persecution only engenders sympathy. Through its ham-fisted approach, the Pakistani establishment has made the public forget their complaints against Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam. Instead, the father and daughter will now be seen as symbols of defiance in an establishment that has consistently undermined Pakistan’s evolution as a democracy.
Even if the military succeeds in installing a selected prime minister into office after the votes are cast on July 25, it will not succeed in its core objective of creating a credible, effective, civilian façade. Sharif’s imprisonment will not end his (or his daughter’s) political careers long after the retirement of the generals and colonels who plotted his downfall. Soldiers should remain soldiers. Politics is more difficult than locating and liquidating enemies.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan.
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