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Nawaz Sharif vacuum: What it means in Pakistan and for talks with India

With Sharif, has gone India’s best shot at normalizing relations with Pakistan.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | New Delhi |
Updated: July 29, 2017 9:13:58 am
Pakistan, Pakistan jammu and kashmir, Indian army, Kashmir, army kashmir, Nawaz Sharif, india news, world news Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (File Photo)

The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister by the Supreme Court of Pakistan was a looming possibility ever since a Joint Investigation Team that was set up by the court to investigate charges of corruption against him and his family submitted its report earlier this month.

Popular democratic politicians are rarely allowed to stay on in office for too long by Pakistan’s “deep state”. For a change though, this deja vu moment in Pakistan’s history – the removal of an elected Prime Minister – was not so much scripted by the Pakistan Army or the ISI, but by the Panama Papers leak, a joint expose by a consortium of international journalists and newspapers into the activities of a law firm in Panama that was helping the world’s wealthy set up offshore entities to evade taxes in their own countries. Sharif was one of many who were thus exposed.

With Sharif has gone India’s best shot at normalising relations with Pakistan. From the 1999 Lahore Declaration to the December 2015 lunch, Sharif consistently advocated peace with India, despite the question mark on whether he did or did not know about the Kargil backstab.

What happened in the Pakistan Court today was the culmination of a nearly eight month long process that began when Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek -i-Insaf, and the sworn rival of Sharif, took the lead provided by the Panama Leaks expose and pushed the court to hear his petition that the Prime Minister be disqualified for corruption.

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The Pakistan Army is no friend of Sharif, and must be delighted that he has finally been unseated without recourse to the 111 Brigade. No doubt it has emerged stronger after this. A weakened or broken Pakistan Muslim League (N), and a near non-existent Pakistan People’s Party, are in its interests. In this sense, this is a sad day for democracy in Pakistan.

But it was Sharif who climbed deeper into his own political grave with every lie, forged or dodgy document his lawyers submitted to the court or Joint Investigation Team as he tried to defend himself against the charges. The most famous of these was a document dated 2004, but in Microsoft’s Calibri font, which came to market only in 2007.

Also, since 2007, when a Chief Justice stared down General Musharraf and lived to tell the tale, Pakistan’s apex court has emerged, somewhat like the Army, as another unelected “stakeholder” in national affairs, powerful enough to use its powers to influence in national affairs.

One of the main arguments that defence laywers deployed in the court earlier this year was the Supreme Court should not hear the petition, and should send it to the trial court. The riposte from one of the judges on the bench, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, was along the following lines: we are the top judiciary of this country, and you are giving us the runaround; what would you not do to a trial court?

However on Tuesday, the Supreme Court, did order a corruption trial against Sharif and members of his family by the National Accountability Bureau, along with disqualifying him for office under Article 62 (1) (f) of the Constitution. The article says no person can become a member of Parliament “unless he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest [sadiq] and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law.”

Was this overreach? The Court’s ground for disqualification is that Sharif did not disclose income received by him from a business in the UAE in his 2013 election affidavit, and therefore he is not honest.

Article 62 was introduced in the Constitution during the Zia era, and is opposed by many right-thinking people in Pakistan, for the reason that under clause (1) (f) it is possible to declare every single person in Pakistan unfit to hold office for any of a number of human failings.

However, Pakistan’s Parliament did not act to remove this clause when it had the chance to do so in 2010, at the time that the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) jointly decided to do away with a number of clauses introduced by General Musharraf when he was the military ruler of the Pakistan.

The National Accountability Bureau has been given six months by the court to complete the trial. The court will monitor the proceedings. The charges are serious. Nawaz is not just disqualified from holding office for ever, he also faces a prison term if NAB finds him guilty, from anywhere between two to a maximum 15 years.

Sharif’s party enjoys a majority in Parliament and there is no immediate threat to the government. The Army will no doubt hope, and perhaps even try to ensure, that Sharif’s successor from within the PML (N) will be someone more amenable to its own designs in the games it plays in the region and beyond in the name of national security.

The Panama expose had weakened and distracted Sharif so much over the last year, that even he was hardly interested in challenging the generals, or in pursuing his “pro-India” agenda, the khakis’ foremost grievance against him.

In fact, as he battled the Panama leaks, Sharif appeared less of his pro-India self, choosing to hail Burhan Wani, the Kashmiri militant who was killed in July last year as a “martyr” and making other statements about the situation in Kashmir, clearly intended to win approval back home, even as they riled India.

Now, as the search for Sharif’s successor intensifies – it had begun a few days ago, indicating that Sharif was anticipating the verdict — the possibility cannot be ruled out that his party may itself not survive the next few months towards the next elections. The fault lines in the PML (N) had already started showing as names of possible successors were put forward as pro-Sharif and pro-establishment candidates slugged it out for the top job. It is also possible that those in the party seen as more electable form a new party, with the help of the establishment.

Waiting in the wings is Imran Khan, the politician widely seen as a creation of Pakistan’s “deep state”, but one who has aslo become an unpredictable player for the establishment, because of his own growing personal popularity. Sharif too was the establishment’s baby when he started out but grew too big and started challenging the powers that be.

Imran was trying to unseat Sharif from immediately after the 2013 elections, alleging that it had been rigged. He was not taken too seriously. The Army stayed its hand despite an open call from him to play the neutral umpire between him and PML(N).

But the Panama Papers gave him just the right platform to build a relentless campaign – he first petitioned the Speaker of the National Assembly, asking him to refer the matter to the Election Commission, and was rejected; then he went to the Supreme Court, where the Registrar dismissed the matter as “frivolous”.

It was only when he threatened to lay siege to Islamabad with his followers until Sharif resigned, and a bloody confrontation between his followers and the government seemed imminent and the possibility of an Army takeover loomed – the Army chief then was General Raheel Sharif, who had no love lost for his namesake in the Prime Minister’s office – that the Supreme Court agreed to hear his petition.

In April, when the Supreme Court set up the JIT to go into the charges, he could barely hide his disappointment thinking it would go the way of all such inquiries. But it did not let him down, and he could have asked for no better verdict from the Supreme Court.

His sights are set on the next election, due in 2018, and they are his to lose. It’s a party that is often held to have the implicit backing of the country’s most powerful institution, the Army, but the party has not been good at winning elections. In the 2013 election, Imran’s supporters thought his moment had come, but were bitterly disappointed by defeat at the hands of PML(N). The PTI did manage to win one provincial election, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but has lost every by-election since then, including one in the KPK.

His views on India are not as cut and dried as the establishment would like them to be. He said Narendra Modi’s victory in the 2014 election was “unfortunate”, has described “extremist” but also said in another reference to him that “people change”.

In any case, all that is in the future. India has not been engaged with Pakistan in any substantial way for more than a year now. With China on the boil, and a domestic agenda focused, as of now, on electoral success, engagement with Pakistan seems unlikely at least till 2019. It’s less than a year to Pakistan’s May 2018 election – and then it will be time for India’s own general election.

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