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Nawaz Sharif’s ouster: A new chapter in Pakistani politics?

On July 28, the Supreme Court of Pakistan delivered its verdict on the petitions filed before it by the Imran Khan-led Tehreek-e-Insaf party that had alleged that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had — in his nomination papers submitted to the election commission — failed to disclose wealth amassed by him and his family.

Information about the Sharif family’s properties abroad first came to light when the papers of the Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, were leaked and published in 2016, when it was revealed that the family had bought three luxury properties in London, registered in the names of Sharif’s then-minor children.

The court in its verdict said that the prime minister had failed to live up to the attributes of “sadiq” (truthfulness) and “ameen” (righteousness) that are constitutionally demanded of incumbents of high office in the country.

After the verdict, Sharif resigned as prime minister and now faces the prospect of imprisonment if the court-mandated investigation by the National Accountability Bureau conclusively proves he and his family are guilty of corruption.

In Pakistan’s 70-year history, no prime minister has yet served a five-year term. With his ouster, Sharif joins the ranks of the deposed prime ministers. In almost every instance, these leaders were ousted by the armed forces — whether via a military coup, or through the army using the judiciary to do the hatchet job.

Given this background, it is not surprising that most comment in global media has tended to be sympathetic to the fallen prime minister, seeing him as a victim of an army-judiciary coup and his ouster as a setback for democracy. That view is supported by the fact that the petitions against Sharif were filed by Imran Khan’s party, which is viewed as being backed by the army.

Indeed, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up by the Supreme Court in April 2017 included not just civilian investigators but also two people representing the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence. Finally, the court issued its verdict and demanded that Sharif step down without a trial or conviction.

Followers of this view point out that Sharif had fallen out of favor with the military due to his public exposure of the army’s affiliation with militancy, which had led to Pakistan’s “international isolation.” Linked with this is the suggestion that Sharif would pursue a peace process with India.

Imran Khan’s political fortunes are clearly on a downward trajectory: His party’s administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province has been unimpressive, even as he is increasingly seen as a Pathan rather than a national leader. 

Talmiz Ahmad

But this argument makes little sense. First, Sharif, perhaps learning from his earlier confrontation with the army in the late 1990s, has shown little inclination to take it on again. He has been most vociferous in his anti-India remarks and has made references to the Kashmir issue at all international forums.

Imran Khan’s political fortunes are clearly on a downward trajectory: His party’s administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) has been unimpressive, even as he is increasingly seen as a Pathan rather than a national leader. And there are muted suggestions that some of his earlier financial dealings would not bear much scrutiny. All in all, it is unlikely that he will romp into the prime minister’s mansion after general elections.

The most likely scenario is that Sharif’s ouster is the result of judicial activism to cleanse Pakistani politics of its endemic corruption, and in this effort the Pakistani army has been a willing ally.

The army in Pakistan is the self-appointed guardian of the country’s nationhood and values, and has consistently found its politicians incompetent and corrupt. Today, it sees Pakistan truly on the edge of an abyss, torn by internal divisions and internecine violence, and facing increasing international opprobrium, particularly from the US. In this scenario, the army’s two-point agenda is: Successful implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects and sustaining a strategic partnership with China.

The army was increasingly concerned that the Sharif government was ineffective in handling the local problems that CPEC projects have thrown up, mainly along Pakistan’s simmering faultlines, such as the Baluch-Punjabi divide, the center-provinces disputes and issues relating to Pathan aspirations, and perceived inefficiencies on the part of the government in the allocation of funds, personnel and achieving progress on the ground.

This is where Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, comes into the picture. He is seen as an excellent administrator, a shrewd businessman and someone capable of taking tough decisions; he seems the right man to see CPEC through. His elevation ends — for now — the political career of Nawaz’s preferred successor, his daughter Maryam, who stands indicted in the “Panamagate” scandal with her father.

Those who believe that Sharif’s ouster is bad news for democracy should take a fresh look at recent developments in other South Asian countries where corruption — once accepted as a normal part of political life — is no longer acceptable and its exposure is effectively used to oust governments and politicians from public life. Sharif’s departure fits this pattern: What we could be seeing in Pakistan is a new chapter in its political life.

• Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.