Pakistan’s game of thrones

Aug 3, 2017
By T.C.A. Raghavan 
The impending 70th anniversary of the creation of Pakistan has been upstaged by the disqualification of an incumbent prime minister on July 28. This juncture is made more poignant by the fact that Nawaz Sharif was in his third term, that this was his third dismissal and cumulatively he has been Pakistan’s longest serving prime minister but like his predecessors had not completed a full term. July has other significant memories too. This year was the 40th anniversary (July 5) of General Zia ul Haq’s coup unseating Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was also the 10th anniversary of the bloody siege of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad. Both these events are not unrelated to the unseating of Nawaz Sharif.
Some of the violence Zia inflicted on Pakistan’s Constitution was erased by Pakistan’s subsequent brief democratic interludes. Some features proved impossible to remove and two which persisted were provisions that elected representatives be truthful and righteous — “sadiq” and “ameen”. To the bench that unseated Nawaz Sharif, a non-disclosure in his 2013 election nomination of remuneration he received from one of his son’s companies meant that he failed this test. In the end, the Joint Investigation Team with Military Intelligence and ISI representation need not have gone into the Panama revelations at all. What nailed Nawaz Sharif was a fishing expedition and a stray unconnected piece of information that turned up was sufficient. That indeed was the purpose of these constitutional provisions.
The bloody end to the Lal Masjid siege (July 10, 2007) had unleashed a wave of terrorist attacks in Pakistan from which no institution and no person appeared safe. The Pakistan army itself appeared ineffective as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan consolidated itself in the tribal areas and launched attacks virtually at will across the length and breadth of the country. When Nawaz Sharif assumed office in 2013, the army’s position in public esteem was possibly lower than it had been in the preceding decade-and-a-half, if not longer. This was because of the shame of the Osama bin Laden raid but also because it appeared to be just standing by as the constant stream of terror attacks continued. Nawaz Sharif, in contrast, was stronger than a prime minister had been in Pakistan for a long time: He appointed a close supporter as president, saw through both the COAS who had been in position for six years and also an activist and ambitious chief justice.
The launch of Zarb-e-Azb in mid-2014 and the intensity it acquired from December 2014 (after the Peshawar school attack) reversed this trend. As the army’s stock grew, so did civil-military jostling that continued through Nawaz Sharif’s tenure. That the odds were stacking up against him was evident as he encountered markedly higher levels of difficulties in addressing his favourite ideas — an improvement of relations with India being high up in them.
On the surface, two institutions evidently played a key role in Nawaz Sharif’s unseating — the judiciary and the media. The role of the judiciary in eroding democratic norms in Pakistan is not new and stretches back to the 1950s.Yet from 2007 onwards, things had appeared to be changing as a movement of judges and lawyers empowered itself through resisting military and extra-constitutional ingress. Pakistan’s media too acquired greater autonomy than ever before through much the same process. But it would also be a fair assessment that both these institutions have had to accommodate themselves to the rising public esteem of the Pakistan military as it battled, from late 2014 onwards, domestic terrorists with a ferocity and intensity that soothed public opinion ravaged by years of terrorist violence.
The Pakistan army also went to very great lengths to internalise a media strategy as the most effective means of interfacing and then influencing public opinion. The size and, even more so, the media outreach of the Inter Services Press Relations wing of the army increased in tandem with the intensity of its anti-terror operations. It is useful to recall that the “establishment” or the “deep state” in Pakistan is not simply a group of individuals or a bundle of institutions plotting the future gathered around a table. It is also an inclination and a way of thinking. In this view, the risk was too great of Nawaz Sharif riding the optimism of a downturn in terrorist attacks, a relative upswing in economic feel-good and reaping the benefits in the 2018 election.
Nawaz Sharif’s final denouement came not just by a judicial process that started with the leak of the Panama Papers. He lost a complex and prolonged chess game that started relatively early in his tenure and to which his own forced and unforced errors also greatly contributed. If Nawaz Sharif’s unseating is the end of one road it is also the beginning of another. He is the unquestioned charismatic head of a party which has deep political roots and deeper pockets. Just leaving him be is not an option. The period up to the 2018 election will now see a no-holds-barred contestation between him and his party on the one hand and the full array of opposing forces seemingly led by Imran Khan.
One theatre of action will be the National Accountability Bureau — Musharraf’s favourite instrument to bring recalcitrant politicians into line. It now stands mandated by the Supreme Court to complete the Panama Papers inquiry into the Sharif family in six months, that is, before the general election. It is presently packed with Nawaz Sharif appointees. Waiting in the wings to open another front is another old army proxy: The Canadian Pakistani preacher Tahir ul Qadri, who seeks to be PM-to-be Shahbaz Sharif’s nemesis as much as Imran Khan is Nawaz Sharif’s.
The main action, however, will be in the towns and villages of Punjab where Nawaz Sharif’s party will see if the slogan of having been wronged thrice strikes a chord. In each of these fronts will be the brooding presence of the army. That it is now reduced to having to move through unpredictable and eccentric instruments is as good a reading as any of the state of Pakistan today.
Indian Express, August 3, 2017

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