Nawaz Sharif survived — what’s next?
My article published in ‘The Express Tribune’.
The second round of Imran Khan’s agitation to topple Nawaz Sharif’s government like the first time ended in a whimper. First the Islamabad High Court did not endorse the plans to lockdown the capital; and then the Supreme Court in an extraordinary move intervened thereby avoiding the much-trumpeted ‘showdown’ scenario.
Since the Panama Leaks named PM’s family as owners and beneficiaries of offshore companies, the opposition has been demanding accountability of the ruling family. This is a legitimate demand and in a functional democracy there should be ways and means to handle such issues. Not in Pakistan where the rules of the game are subverted by the players. In an ideal world, the parliament should have taken the lead and found a mechanism of leading an inquiry and holding the executive accountable. Imran Khan’s politicking has entailed corruption as a key issue and his followers share the same fatigue with a patronage based, rigged political system.
The demands of Imran Khan and his ardent supporters, who are obviously disappointed in their leader’s U-turns, are not new. Since the British rule, the native politicians were deemed as corrupt and the inheritors of the Raj — the civil-military bureaucracy — from the 1950s have popularized this view overlooking the systemic, embedded corruption that exists within the unelected institutions. Whether it is the judiciary (especially at the lower level), the police, the revenue administration or even sections of the military establishment, malpractices are common, widely reported and experienced.
Nawaz Sharif led similar campaigns in the 1990s and most of the corruption cases against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari were framed during his two terms as the PM. Things have changed and now Nawaz Sharif is at the receiving end of the military establishment for his desire to assert his constitutional powers, reclaim policymaking and resetting the national security doctrine, which has the India at its center. In the 1990s it was Benazir Bhutto who was a security risk and a sellout on Kashmir. Two decades later, it is Sharif who is a ‘traitor’ and judging by the aggressive social media campaigns (shared by some on TV) he is a friend of Indian PM Modi, his daughter a Machiavellian plotter, and of course they are all corrupt. Sharifs built their fortune under the tutelage of the establishment, is, an inconvenient fact totally ignored.
Imran Khan’s recent putsch came in the wake of Nawaz Sharif’s distrustful relationship with the military. The Dawn leaks were just one public manifestation of this reality. The not-so-smart advisers and perhaps Imran Khan himself thought that the military might be ready to do his bidding as it did for Bhutto, Sharif and many others. What they forgot is that Pakistan Army of 2016 is not the same and it has recognized clear limits to its powers and prefers what is also known as the Kayani doctrine — of retaining influencing on policy yet avoiding direct governance.
Nawaz Sharif and his administration unlike 2014 resorted to strong-arm tactics to avoid crowds gathering in the capital. Some of the actions were distasteful. Some violated of constitutional rights. Reportedly, PM decided to confront Imran Khan and his allies. This was an obvious lesson from the 2014 experience. Parleys were also held between the Army Chief and PM’s aides. Details of such meetings never become public but there must have been some mutual ‘accommodation’ in the civil-military sense. Firing the Minister of Information was also a signal to the military ostensibly offended by public leaks on civil-military discord.
PM Sharif has won this round. He is likely to appoint a new Army Chief and none of the opposition parties can defeat him in the next election. But this sense of victory must not delude Nawaz Sharif and his courtiers.
The rumpus over Panama Leaks may have subsided but it can’t be wished away. Legitimacy of public officials is, in great measure, linked to perceptions. With broken accountability systems at every level, Pakistanis are going to be even more frustrated. The election is still two years away. The Supreme Court is exercising extraordinary powers, some say beyond its jurisdiction, in handling the investigation. The outcome is still unknown and if there is a remote chance of disqualification, which might be there, then PM Sharif needs a variety of alternative plans.
The Sharif government needs to demonstrate greater transparency in its decision-making. Projects and their details under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are opaque. Large infrastructure projects still raise eyebrows for the choice of contractors and burgeoning costs. The National Accountability Bureau has turned into a joke and the draft law to reform it, prepared by the previous government, eats dust somewhere in the Parliament. Electoral reforms are still to be initiated. And fossilized Election Commission needs modernization, more independence, credibility and better functioning local offices. All of this needs to be on top of government’s agenda.
It is a pity that Imran Khan, who symbolized hope for millions, has squandered a transformational opportunity. With two failed attempts at regime change, a party beset by infighting and packed with turncoats, Khan is overestimating his staying power in politics. The dismal performance of his party cadres in mobilizing crowds should be an eye-opener. Even the Umpire can refuse to intervene in such circumstances.
Khan still has a chance, though somewhat truncated now, to reorganize his party at the grassroots level for the next election and translate the idealistic rhetoric into the way PTI government functions in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Unwittingly, Khan has strengthened Sharif even more making the latter appear as a statesman compared to his antics and U-turns.
This respite for the government will remain ephemeral until Nawaz government attempts to build civilian institutions of governance especially the parliamentary processes. No elected government can rebalance civil-military relations until civilian power is reorganized and consensus is forged on key challenges facing the country including the reframing of the national security framework. This is why finding dispute resolution mechanisms within the parliament, engaging with the civil society and developing a competent rather than a servile bureaucracy, are even more important for the years ahead.
Published: November 5, 2016