Those in Pakistan and elsewhere who anticipated that a planned siege of Islamabad by the opposition politician Imran Khan earlier this week would be the scene setter for military intervention against the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are heaving a sigh of relief that democracy has survived. But the near-“encounter” has left Sharif even weaker than he was before and strengthened the powerful military establishment’s position as the final arbiter on foreign policy and national security matters.
Imran Khan had threatened to take over the streets of the Pakistan capital with swarms of his workers on November 2. But a day earlier, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, had petitioned for Sharif’s disqualification from Parliament on the grounds of corruption, ruled that a commission would be set up to probe the allegations that stem from the Panama Papers.
The “Panamagate” scandal in which Sharif is embroiled relates to a slew of off- shore investments held by three of his four children, one of whom, daughter Maryam, is seen as his political heir. Sharif is not personally named as a beneficiary but Khan and other opponents had demanded he step down. The planned siege of Islamabad was to last till Sharif resigned, but after the SC order, Khan decided to call off the protest, accepting the court’s call to both government and opposition for “restraint”.
Given Sharif’s fraught relations with the Pakistan military, and its current chief General Raheel Sharif, there was concern that any move by the government to take on the protestors could set the stage for the military to step in. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that this is what Khan was hoping for. In a thinly veiled reference to the army, Khan had said that Sharif would be responsible if democracy was derailed and a ‘third power’ stepped in as a result.
In a previous attempt to unseat Sharif in 2014, that time on c
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harges of rigging the 2013 parliamentary election, Khan had directly made an appeal to the army, calling it the “third umpire”. But Khan sees himself, and not the military, as the next government in Pakistan. And there is no evidence thus far to show that the Army — which learnt during the Musharraf era that running a country is far more difficult that taking over — is about to succumb to that temptation again.
Unlike Bonapartist armies elsewhere, Pakistan’s military wants to be popular. Ruling the country is the fastest route to becoming unpopular. It is far better to have power without accountability — as of now, it is the Pakistan Army that dominates two crucial areas of governance – foreign policy and national security.
Sharif has been locked in a struggle with the Army to wrest control of these two vital portfolios. The clash came to the fore last month when Dawn newspaper published an account of a closed door meeting between members of the government and representatives of the military, including the ISI chief, reporting that the elected politicians took the ISI to task for backing terrorist groups such as the LeT, JeM and the Haqqani network, which had led to Pakistan’s isolation in the world.
The Army took a serious view of the leak, and the Sharif government had to deny the report three times, sacrifice the Information Minister, and agree to the appointment of an enquiry committee, comprising officials of the MI, IB and the ISI.
For Sharif, the Supreme Court’s decision to appoint a commission to investigate his probity is nothing less than a body blow. The Terms of Reference of the one-man commission, which the court is expected to set up as early as November 7, are still being decided. The Panama leaks on the Sharif family’s offshore holdings cannot be easily dismissed by the argument that the Prime Minister’s name does not figure in them. The question being asked is how 20-something children –which is how old Sharif kids were when the accounts were opened — acquired fortunes big enough to stash away in secret accounts abroad. The commission may lead to disqualification and worse.
All this has shrunk Sharif’s political capital dramatically. The “other Sharif”, the Army chief, is to retire at the end of this month. He had declared at the beginning of this year that he was not looking for an extension. Prime Minister Sharif is yet to announce his successor, and uncertainty prevails on whether there will be one, or if Gen Sharif will get an extension in view of India-Pakistan tensions.
Less than a year ago, Prime Minister Sharif and Prime Minister Modi were planning next steps towards normalization. That seems like a long gone era now. For a politician who has espoused normalization of India-Pakistan ties at least since the 1999 Lahore Declaration, there has been very little heard from Sharif in the weeks after the attack on Uri, the counter-strike by Indian forces in PoK, the escalation of the temperature at the Line of Control and the tit for tat spy expulsions in both countries.
In a very short span of time, both countries have marched backward almost to where they were pre-ceasefire in 2001 in their diplomatic relations. In times like these, it is the political leadership that cuts through the ice. With the UP elections on its mind, it does not look like the initiative will come from the Modi government. And given his circumstances, it is highly unlikely that it will come from Sharif.