How Nawaz Sharif Can Strengthen Democracy Beyond Pakistan’s Punjab

Reaching out to provinces beyond Punjab can pave way for Nawaz Sharif’s comeback in Pakistan.
Reaching out to provinces beyond Punjab can pave way for Nawaz Sharif’s comeback in Pakistan.(Photo: Lijumol Joseph/ The Quint)

How Nawaz Sharif Can Strengthen Democracy Beyond Pakistan’s Punjab

For very long, Punjab’s non-Punjabi provinces (including Sindh, where the Pakistan Peoples Party is dominant) have accused political outfits from Punjab, including Sharif’s PML-N of being hand-in-glove with the army, and coming in the way of democratic regime. There is some truth in this.

The only leader of national stature from Punjab, Nawaz Sharif, who today does not share the most cordial of relations with the military, was brought into politics by the military dictator, General Zia-Ul-Haq.

Sharif who served as a minister in the Punjab government, and later took on the mantle as the chief minister of Punjab, was brought in to counter the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by Benazir Bhutto.

Ties With the Pakistan Army

Two factors determine this alliance between Sharif and the army.

A number of properties of the Ittefaq Group of Foundries (Sharif’s family business) had been nationalised during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s (Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1973 to 1977) and as a result, he found common cause with the military). Apart from this, there was some convergence between Sharif’s conservative views, and General Zia-Ul-Haq’s religious leanings. The latter had called Sharif his spiritual son.

To be fair, Sharif did emerge out of the military’s shadow very fast, with his pro-reform credentials and administrative skills as a provincial minister and then as the chief minister of Punjab.

In 1990, a right wing coalition, Islamic Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI), backed by the establishment and led by Nawaz Sharif won the election, defeating PPP government led by Benazir Bhutto. The IJI was later disbanded, and Sharif’s PML-N dominated the political scene, especially in Punjab.

Ever since his dismissal in 1993, Sharif’s relations began to sour with the army, the coup by General Pervez Musharraf of course was the tipping point. To his credit, Sharif backed the lawyer’s movement in 2007 and despite his differences with the PPP government (2008-2013) led by Asif Ali Zardari, he did nothing to destabilise the government.

Also Read: A Soft Coup in Pakistan: Army Consolidates Power

Pakistan Army has hampered Sharif’s efforts, in the past, of reaching out to India.
Pakistan Army has hampered Sharif’s efforts, in the past, of reaching out to India.
(Photo: Rhythum Seth/ The Quint)

Vulnerabilities of Sharif

One of the main reasons behind Sharif’s tensions with the army throughout his tenure has been attempts to improve ties with India, something which is not acceptable to the Pakistan Army.

This was clearly evident even during his third tenure from 2013 till recently. In the immediate aftermath of his meetings with Prime Minister Modi in July 2015 and then the Indian PM’s stopover in Lahore in December 2015, there were two terror attacks (Gurdaspur and Pathankot). Sharif who was embroiled in numerous domestic problems since 2014, took an aggressive stand on Kashmir.

The Mossack Fonseca files leak which revealed that Sharif’s family had offshore companies, and possessed properties in London further resulted in weakening PM Sharif, and strengthening the army. In August 2016, Imran Khan’s PTI had submitted a petition seeking Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification based on the Mossack Fonseca files leak.

With Sharif being weakened, rumours of a coup began doing the rounds and in June 2016, army chief Raheel Sharif met with the cabinet at the General Headquarters (GHQ) Rawalpindi, while Nawaz Sharif was in the UK for an open heart surgery. Later, the army clarified that the meeting was held to discuss issues pertaining to the CPEC project.

Also Read: After Panama Leaves Sharif Govt Defunct, Is Crisis the New Coup?

Judicial Coup in 2007

With Sharif’s recent disqualification from the Parliament following his resignation as prime minister and the recent notice to appoint a new party leader of the PML-N, it remains to be seen whether Punjab (where PML-N is the key player) will rally behind democratic forces. After all, who can forget the lawyer’s movement in 2007, that took the entire nation by surprise after ex-chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s ouster, which led to the exit of General Pervez Musharraf.

After Sharif’s disqualification, it was interesting to note that a large number of analysts and individuals unequivocally criticised his disqualification, even dubbing it as a ‘judicial coup’, while also alluding to involvement of the Pakistani establishment in the protests.

A number of analysts pointed out that General Pervez Musharraf despite serious charges against him had been allowed to escape to London.

It is also incumbent upon Nawaz Sharif to reach out to the non-Punjabi provinces and address their legitimate grievances.

The India Factor

Finally, the PML-N also has the opportunity of taking bold steps for reaching out to India, and sending a clear message to the Pakistan army. For this, it needs to tighten the screws on terror groups like JuD and JeM, which have been targeting India.

Hafiz Saeed, head of JuD has been put under house arrest, the organisation has set up a new political outfit, the Milli Muslim league, which will receive support of the army, as Imran Khan’s PTI has received in the past. Saeed has lambasted Sharif for being soft on India.

Punjab can lead the way in strengthening democracy and Nawaz Sharif will play a crucial role in this. He will need to take on the establishment head on, but should not be reckless as he has been in the past.

Also Read: What Makes Shahbaz Sharif the Second Most Powerful Person in Pak

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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