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Can Pakistani State’s Status Quo Change ‘Thanks To’ Nawaz Sharif?

Will Nawaz Sharif’s bravado and aggression translate into actual political action on the streets of Pakistan?

Published
Opinion
6 min read
Image of former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif used for representational purposes.
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In an unprecedented move, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has openly challenged an institution which has always been above censure in Pakistan – the Army. Sharif’s intention to take the bull by the horns became apparent when he addressed the multi-party conference (MPC) of the Opposition parties.

It rarely happens that a popular leader launches an attack on Pakistan’s military establishment.

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan has lambasted Nawaz for his explosive outbursts against the military, which has consistently backed his ‘inefficient’ regime. Arguing that “a fugitive sitting in London is maligning the state institutions,” Imran accused Nawaz of promoting India’s agenda of vilifying Pakistan’s institutions when the UN General Assembly is in session.

Branding any politician as being ‘hand-in-glove with India’ is the ultimate weapon in the hands of the establishment to muzzle their voice and discredit their demands.

The military’s arrogation of the responsibility for defending Pakistan’s founding ideology – the Two-Nation Theory – means that it has the sole authority to define what constitutes as a ‘threat’ to the nation.

The military believes that cozying up to India or doing anything which even remotely helps India is not only illegitimate but also an affront to the very ethos of Pakistan.

How Nawaz Sharif Became ‘Anti-Pakistan Army’

Imran’s senior Cabinet colleagues, in a press conference, also lashed out at Opposition leaders for bringing ‘disrepute’ to the military which enjoys a highly-privileged and powerful position in the country. It needs to be noted that Pakistan has experienced many military coups – in 1958, 1977 and 1999 – which have weakened its governing institutions, while adversely affecting the democratic and constitutional evolution of the country.

These authoritarian dynamics shape how Pakistani leaders perceive threats and select policies to attain their goals.

Nawaz has been prime minister three times since 1990. He was an early ally of the military – Gen Zia-ul Haq had appointed him as Punjab province’s finance minister in 1980 – who soon developed differences with the military. It was his tensions with Gen Pervez Musharraf which culminated in the 1999 coup, that led to his overthrow and subsequent exile from the country. And many farcical trials on corruption and money laundering charges led to his latest ouster in 2018, in which the military had used the judiciary to oust him; the bone of contention was his insistence that Musharraf must face a trial for high treason. Nawaz has since become defiant, not afraid to criticise the military.

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Nawaz Sharif’s Corruption Charges Against Pak Army & Demand For Change In Pak’s Foreign Policy

In his public address via video conferencing, Nawaz condemned the military’s interference in Pakistani politics and its manipulation of State institutions. Declaring that his fight was not against Imran Khan but against those who had got the ‘selected’ regime installed in Islamabad through a manipulated mandate, Nawaz lamented that things have deteriorated to such an extent that the military is virtually a “State above the State.” He questioned the government’s inaction on the corruption of powerful military people such as Lt Gen Asim Bajwa (no connection with the Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa). Retired from the army, Asim Bajwa is currently heading the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project and there are serious charges against him for creating a vast business empire.

Clearly, the military’s interference is at once a geopolitical game and big business.

Although former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari; the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari; and the PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif also spoke in the rally, it was actually Nawaz who stole the show – and understandably so. Nawaz underlined the threats to the independent functioning of the judiciary and the media by the hybrid regime of Imran Khan and Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Calling for a relook at Pakistan’s foreign policy, which he described as being ‘against’ Pakistan’s national interests, Nawaz came down heavily on Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for attacking Saudi Arabia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

His reference was to Qureshi’s comments on the so-called procrastination of Gulf countries on the Kashmir issue, which led to the souring of relations between Islamabad and Riyadh. This had forced the Army Chief to visit Saudi Arabia to do damage control. Countering the allegations of ‘failed foreign policy’, the foreign minister has said that the international community has acknowledged Pakistan’s key role in facilitating the Afghan peace process.

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Nawaz’s ‘Weakened’ Position

Nawaz’s no-holds-barred onslaught against the “deep state” assumes significance because any public criticism of the military is considered akin to blasphemy in Pakistan. But despite the bravado displayed by Nawaz, the most important question that comes to mind is how this aggression will translate into political action on the streets.

Nawaz, whose power base is in Punjab, has been in exile in London. He has been declared a proclaimed offender by an accountability court.

His sons have been declared absconders, and his brother Shahbaz is also facing corruption charges. Uncertainty lingers over whether Shahbaz will support Nawaz’s hardline stance against the establishment. The political game will only get murkier if Nawaz decides to come back to face trail.

On the other hand, the strength of PPP remains confined to Sindh, where it is running the provincial government. Since the party has considerable stakes in the continuation of its government, it cannot be expected to take a radical stand. Moreover, many of its leaders are also mired in corruption cases. And the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) Chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman remains as unpredictable as ever. With sufficient street power, the Maulana may be contemplating a repeat of his mammoth march on Islamabad.

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‘Nawaz May Have Displayed Style – But Where Is The Substance?’

Nonetheless, this is an extraordinarily tumultuous moment in Pakistani politics. The storm that Nawaz’s speech has stirred is an evidence of the undercurrent of huge resentment against the policies and the leadership. The way the present political system is structured in Pakistan poses enormous obstacles to transparent and democratic governance.

The utterly discredited PTI regime is unable to address the basic issues that bedevil Pakistani politics and economy.

Moreover, dissent is being curbed with a heavy hand. Political opponents are being silenced with trumped-up charges. Media houses are subject to direct and indirect controls, with many television channels functioning primarily as public relations arms of the government.

In politics, style is as important as substance. Nawaz may have displayed his style, but where is the substance?

In this moment of democratic deficit and economic hardships in Pakistan, most of the people are so angry – some scarily so – that they yearn for more compassionate politics than that of a system featuring but a single ruling party that claims to know everything, and believes that all others sitting in parliament are thugs.

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Record of Those Demanding Change Is As ‘Pathetic’ As Those Defending Status Quo

However, the record of those demanding a change in the political status quo is as pathetic as those trying to defend it with the help of the military. 

At the core of many of the ills afflicting Pakistan is the rejection of the separation of religion and State. This rejection has been accompanied by an erosion of tolerance towards diversity of religious identities and opinions, leading to irrational demands for violence against all minorities including Ahmadiyyas and Shias. The repressive, intolerant domestic political culture and the witch-hunt are the inevitable byproducts of the country’s inability to redefine its governing ideology.

Opposition parties have decided to launch an anti-government campaign under the aegis of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which is scheduled to hold a series of protest rallies across Pakistan.

If the Opposition campaign against the PTI government gains momentum, the army will have little option but to replace Imran with a more pliable politician. But if the Opposition fails to get its act together, then Imran will have received some breathing space.

(Vinay Kaura, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice (Department of Home, Government of Rajasthan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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