The fragility of Pakistan’s democracy and the price that a civilian, democratically elected leader has to pay for any purported indiscretion in regard to the Army has come out in bold focus with the conviction of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law Muhammad Safdar by a National Accountability Bureau.
Nawaz was charged for corrupt practices linked to his family’s purchase of upscale London flats, but in Pakistan, corruption is nothing earth-shaking. The real reason for the Army, aided and abetted by a section of the judiciary, to have fallen foul of Nawaz was his outspokenness, reflected in sometimes rubbing the generals on the wrong side, and his conciliatory attitude towards India especially to refurbish Pakistan’s image.
If Nawaz Sharif’s wife Kulsoom survived the contrived judicial onslaught, it was because she is grimly fighting cancer in a London hospital and is an object of sympathy. One thing is clear that in this brazen attempt to browbeat Nawaz, both the Army and the judiciary have come down a few notches in public esteem.
With general elections slated in Pakistan on July 25, Nawaz was a frontrunner and Maryam was a rising star. Now disqualified from contesting, they have been upstaged. Instead, the Army’s current favourite is former cricketer Imran Khan whose party is anticipating a virtual walkover.
Nawaz’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is an entity with shattered morale. It is acutely aware that even if the people decide to catapult it to winning status, there would be other means used to prevent it from forming a government at the national level. Nawaz’s tiff with the Army dated back to the acrimony that characterised relations between General Pervez Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif leading up to when the former ousted Nawaz from power and sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia. They had sharp differences over Musharraf’s Kargil misadventure.
When Nawaz returned to power, Musharraf stayed away abroad even as the Army was watching. He was afraid that Nawaz would take revenge. Nawaz’s act of attending the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2014 without the Army’s consent infuriated the Army generals no end. His receiving Modi at the airport when Modi was returning from an overseas trip subsequently added fuel to the fire.
For his main political opponent, Imran, it is virtually a fixed match. The Army is in cahoots with him. To add to the conviction of Nawaz Sharif, there have been the defections that were forced through intimidation, the imprisonment and disqualification of top PML-N leaders, besides the dubious role of the military and the judiciary. On top of it, the media has been arm-twisted to oppose Nawaz. It is clearly a battle loaded against the three times prime minister.
The Pakistan Army shrugs off blame for the country being a virtual pariah in international relations with a reputation for being a conduit for terror activities. Instead, it points fingers at Nawaz for acknowledging in an interview with ‘Dawn’: “We have isolated ourselves. Despite making sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it. Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors — should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai (the terror attacks of 2008)?
“Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” Nawaz said, referring to the trial in Pakistan of those involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Clearly, Nawaz is on the horns of a dilemma. If he continues to stay out, his countrymen will say that he is a coward. But if he returns to Pakistan, he would be put behind bars and would lose the connect with the masses. However, there is no denying that the Army, which has long survived on the staple diet of anti-Indianism is now being seen in a poor light by many in Pakistan. It is looked upon as a saboteur of democracy.
Twice before, Nawaz Sharif has resurrected himself. Will he do it again? This time around it seems a difficult proposition but one cannot put it past him. He is indeed a tenacious fighter. The media is in disarray even as the authorities, egged on by the Army and the judiciary, hound those journalists who write well of Nawaz.
Taha Siddiqui, a prominent Pakistani reporter, who has been critical of the military, wrote in the UK Guardian newspaper this month that he relocated to Paris after escaping kidnap on a busy highway in Islamabad in January. In the open letter to Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, he accused the military of the attempted abduction and an atmosphere that was muzzling the media and forcing journalists into exile.
There are examples galore of newspaper barons being hounded and that too is not going down well with the people at large. The upcoming elections will perhaps make the future picture clearer. The Army elated that it has the judiciary virtually under its thumb will seek to assert its extra-constitutional hold over the elected government even more.
Pakistan needs to worry about its isolation worldwide and the terror tag that it is getting. So long as the Army continues to do backseat driving, Islamabad can have little to cheer about. The detente with India, too, appears far-fetched. With a terrorist like Hafiz Saeed being allowed to contest the polls and aspiring to a political role with the Army’s tacit approval, Pakistan’s stock can only plummet further.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.