By Vivek Katju
The fall of a well entrenched prime minister in Pakistan may be riveting drama but will not alter the reality of its polity or its institutional structure and balance. The political class only takes care of subordinate governance, for the major issues that confront Pakistan – especially in the security sphere – are the domain of the generals.
Thus Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s removal from office by the Supreme Court last Friday through its extraordinary, if not strange, decision in the Panama Papers case will impact the country’s polity. However, it will not influence domestic issues of interest to the army; nor will it have any real consequence on its crucial foreign ties including with India, Afghanistan and China.
The Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz – the powerful chief minister of Punjab – currently control Pakistani politics. This is largely because of their firm hold of Punjab, comprehensively the country’s most significant province. They manage a powerful and intricate network of biradaris and clans at the tehsil and district levels. While Nawaz provides the mass appeal in Punjab and, to an extent, nationally, it is Shahbaz who astutely handles the day to day affairs of Punjab.
Now with the decision to move Shahbaz to the PM’s chair once he is elected as a member of the National Assembly, Nawaz’s first challenge will be to ensure that the party, PML(N), does not fray at the margins. Threats will come both from within the party as well as from external political actors especially Imran Khan, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), who is undoubtedly chuffed up because he instituted and vigorously and successfully pursued the Panama Papers case.
National elections are due next year. Nawaz Sharif and his children including Maryam, his chosen political heir, will have to undergo a trial for corruption and fraud which will begin soon in the National Accountability Court. Notwithstanding Nawaz’s poignant cry that he was unseated for money he did not take, the accountability case on Sharif properties abroad will give opportunities to opponents within the party, such as Chaudhry Nisar, to strike out on their own and to Imran Khan to poach PML(N) leaders.
As the accountability trial proceeds the Sharifs may be tempted to go in for the dangerous gamble of going to the polls prematurely, without the possible stigma of a conviction on fraud and corruption. An early election though may be seen as a sign of the family’s waning fortune and the party will greatly suffer. This difficult decision will test the Sharifs’ political instincts.
Will the generals let Pakistan’s polity take its natural course or quietly indicate their preference for the Sharifs to go? The problem for the men in khaki is that they do not fully trust Imran Khan’s maturity as a politician. It is one thing to use him to pressure the Sharifs, it is quite another to consider him capable of being a prime minister.
Besides, Shahbaz who is practical and smart does not evoke the generals’ ire as Nawaz does; he is unlikely to encroach on their foreign and security policy turf. An important consideration for the army will be its preference to maintain a minimum of political stability at a time when Pakistan’s strategic environment is not in its control and work on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is underway.
Naturally Imran Khan will seek to ride the Panama Papers victory wave. He will have some attraction in urban Punjab but will confront major ethnic and provincial obstacles. The Mohajir/ Pathan contradictions in Sindh, the Baloch resentment of the Pathans as also the anti-Pathan sentiment being fanned in Punjab will come to the surface. The road ahead for him therefore is neither smooth nor straight. But he is a fighter and will trouble a weakened Sharif family.
The Zardaris are confined mainly to Sindh and do not have the leadership or the machinery in Punjab to nibble at the Sharifs. They will remain articulate but will have to be content to watch from the sidelines the flow of moves on the political chessboard. It can be anticipated that religious parties will be held in check by the army not to add to the political flux.
Will these developments impact India-Pakistan ties? Nawaz Sharif dealt directly with six Indian prime ministers. He charmed and convinced many of them including, it seems, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of his sincerity in wanting to establish cooperative relations. He also assured them of his willingness to take on the army in this quest. Therefore he evoked the feeling that he was the best hope for bilateral ties. This was misleading for he was always and effectively constrained by the army even during his second term when he was best placed against them.
The generals could not countenance Nawaz Sharif’s unilateral forays with Modi – not when he visited Delhi for the latter’s oath taking ceremony, nor in Ufa when they rejected the Modi-Sharif Joint Statement and nor with the concerted December 2015 moves which culminated with Modi’s Lahore visit which particularly provoked them.
Through the Pathankot and Uri terrorist attacks the generals conveyed that they were the arbiters of Pakistan’s India policy. This reality leads to the inference that Nawaz’s departure will not change India-Pakistan relations. In the coming months the army will not want a confrontation with India but its aggressive approach in Kashmir will continue. On Kashmir, Nawaz and the army stood together.
Times of India, July 31, 2017