Punditry and forecasting are both inexact ‘sciences’. Sometimes, the line between the two gets blurred. Something of this nature has overtaken the Pakistani commentariat regarding the plans of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. By and large, our commentators and analysts got it wrong when they almost unanimously predicted that Nawaz Sharif would not return to the country and would rather stay put in London where his wife Kulsoom Nawaz, the successful candidate in Lahore’s NA-120 recent by-election, is undergoing treatment for cancer. But then perhaps one should not blame the commentariat too much, since they relied on whatever received wisdom was floating around. However, the outcome of their punditry should serve as an object lesson that received wisdom too needs to be digested critically, and judgement reserved until all the facts have been gathered.
Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan, reportedly against the advice of close members of his family and the ministers of the PML-N government. Their argument was that the outcome of the Panama case shows that the whole process has little to do with the charges of corruption and more to do with a political coup. Nawaz Sharif himself buys into this argument, pointing out that the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s (SCP’s) verdict of July 28, 2017 had nothing to do with the charges brought and that he was disqualified on the grounds of a relatively minor technicality. The fate of his and his family’s review petitions (dismissed) and the appointment of a SCP judge to supervise the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) proceedings in the four references filed against the Sharifs and Ishaq Dar has further convinced Nawaz Sharif that neither did he receive fair treatment nor justice, nor can he expect anything different in the NAB references. Why then, in the face of this opposing tide, has Nawaz Sharif decided to return to Pakistan and face the music?
The crucial huddle in London between Nawaz Sharif and the leadership of the PML-N in London proved a deciding factor. Legal advice and reportedly Shahbaz Sharif’s take persuaded the former prime minister to gird up his loins and face the references on solid legal grounds. The advantage of such a course lies in the weak case likely to be made out in the NAB references. Since the SCP had ordered the filing of these references within six weeks, there was no time for NAB to reopen investigations into these cases. The NAB references therefore perforce rely on the SCP-appointed Joint Investigation Team’s (JIT’s) report. Irrespective of whether certain reports claiming that NAB investigators themselves are not convinced of the JIT’s findings providing a solid case are true or not, the fact remains that the JIT findings may turn out to be inadmissible as evidence. Many legal eagles have described the JIT’s findings as weak and faulty since they largely rely on media reports and documents obtained in an ‘informal’ fashion both inside Pakistan and abroad. Such ‘evidence’ does not fulfil the criteria for admissibility in a court of law.
Be that as it may, and the days ahead will reveal more on this account, the disadvantages of staying away in self-imposed exile and avoiding appearance in the references were obvious. No doubt the experience of the exile suffered by the Sharifs after General Musharraf’s coup informed this view. Returning to face what may turn out to be weak and eventually inconclusive references would obviously rebound in Nawaz Sharif’s favour. Second, returning allows Nawaz Sharif to take charge of the party fully once again now that the Electoral Reforms Bill 2017 has cleared the way for disqualified Nawaz Sharif to once again don the mantle of the PML-N’s head. His presence inside the country could also help ward off challenges or differences within the ruling party, whether these are stoked by outside forces or the ambitions of some PML-N leaders within. The Muslim League as a party enjoys the dubious distinction of disintegrating or carrying out internal leadership ‘coups’ when the incumbent leader gets into trouble with the powers-that-be. Nawaz Sharif himself owes his rise to paramount position within the Muslim League to his accepting the patronage of dictator General Ziaul Haq when he removed his own handpicked prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1988. Nawaz was hoist by his own petard after Musharraf’s 1999 coup when the Chaudries abandoned him in his time of trouble and forged the King’s Party, the PML-Q. It is also salutary in passing to meditate on the fate of the PML-Q subsequently. With his hands on the reins of the party as its restored head, Nawaz Sharif is positioning himself to fight the good fight against the campaign launched against him for dubious purposes. The seemingly orchestrated from behind the scenes campaign is a familiar gambit when the establishment wants someone out of power.
Now that the superior judiciary seems to be going along with the ‘get Nawaz’ effort, it would do well to remember that the track record of our judiciary in endorsing military coups in the past and co-operating with dictators against democracy leaves a great deal to be desired. Trust and confidence in a judiciary restored after it was decapitated by Musharraf in 2007 has been eroded, first by the controversial jurisprudence created by former Chief Justice Ifitkhar Chaudhry’s court, later by the proceedings in the Panama case.
Denials notwithstanding, such political earthquakes tend to revive suspicions about the role of the establishment as the author of these anti-democratic manoeuvres. Pakistan is most unfortunate in being unable to shake off this legacy of establishment interventions to disrupt the political and democratic process. That is the main reason no democratic political system has been able to take root in this country. It is precisely such manoeuvring that lost us half the country in 1971, and threatens to destabilise the remainder now.
The struggle for democracy has consumed almost all the political capital of Pakistan to date. Even progressive forces were subsumed within the folds of this struggle, especially during periods of military dictatorship, which have so far consumed half our life as an independent country. Such legerdemain has persisted for 70 years. It remains to be seen if it can persist for another 70 without serious disruption. If the people of Pakistan, the real sovereign in any political construct, one day come to the conclusion that enough is enough, dark portents threaten.