The Supreme Court's decision has given a huge jolt to the fragile democratic system. And, Sharif's political legacy is lying in tatters.

Ashok Sajjanhar, Kashmir, Sharif, Raisina Debates, Islamabad, Pakistan Army

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was dramatically forced to cut short his tenure and step down from the chair after the country’s Supreme Court delivered a unanimous 5-0 verdict against him on 28 July. It is to Sharif’s credit that he did not demur in acting according to the verdict and moving out of his office although his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML(N)) protested vociferously and termed the verdict as a conspiracy to unseat Sharif. Sharif said that despite his “strong reservations” about the verdict, he would abide by the court’s decision. A spokesman for the PML(N) party said that they would use all legal and constitutional methods to challenge the decision. Sharif’s supporters are confident that as in the past, he will bounce back this time also, notwithstanding the lifelong ban imposed on him.

Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding office after a corruption probe into his family wealth following the Panama Papers leak, which had erupted a little more than a year ago. This cut short his third stint in power, the earlier two also having been terminated before their completion. The first was in 1993 following irreconcilable differences with the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the second time was when he was deposed by then army chief General Pervez Musharraf through a military coup in 1999.

After the general elections in 2013, Nawaz Sharif became the 26th Prime Minister of Pakistan since its formation 70 years ago. None of the Prime Ministers thus far has been able to complete the full term except for Shaukat Aziz who served a curtailed tenure from August 2004 till the end of duration of the National Assembly in November 2007. It was expected that Sharif would be able to break this jinx but now he was also forced to quit after having been in office for a little more than four years. As Husain Haqqani, former Ambassador of Pakistan to Washington DC, tweeted, “Pakistan stays faithful to its 70-year tradition: No PM ever removed by voters; only by judges, generals, bureaucrats or assassins.” He went on to add: “Nawaz Sharif is a flawed man. But the manner of his removal is even more flawed.” This is the general refrain that has greeted the court verdict in Pakistan while Sharif’s opponents, sections of the political class and journalist community have welcomed and celebrated the clear judgment.

Sharif was compelled to leave after the Supreme Court dismissed him following the findings of an investigative panel that alleged that his family could not account for its vast wealth. The six-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT), established by the Supreme Court in May, 2017, concluded that three of Nawaz Sharif’s four children — two sons Hasan Nawaz, and Hussain Nawaz Sharif and daughter Maryam Safdar — used shell companies to buy properties in London and were not able to satisfactorily explain the sources of their wealth. The court also recommended anti-corruption cases against Sharif, Maryam, her husband Safdar, Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s finance minister, and others.

Sharif was compelled to leave after the Supreme Court dismissed him following the findings of an investigative panel that alleged that his family could not account for its vast wealth.

Sharif has not been debarred from holding political office because of the charges of corruption or misappropriation of government funds. These charges have not been investigated so far. The Supreme Court in its verdict directed the National Accountability Bureau to launch a criminal investigation against Sharif and his family based on evidence collected by the JIT to fully investigate the charges of money-laundering and to get to the bottom of all charges against the Sharif household.

Alternatively, the bench focused on employment of Prime Minister Sharif as chairman of the board of Capital FZE and whether non-disclosure of the said employment in nomination papers for the 2013 elections constituted a breach of Section 12(2) of the Representation of the People Act, 1976. The bench answered this question in the affirmative and professed that the said non-disclosure is tantamount to furnishing a false declaration on solemn affirmation, which disentitles the Prime Minister from being called “honest” for the purposes of Article 62(1)(f) of the constitution, 1973 and Section 99(1)(f) of the Representation of People Act, 1976. Two out of the five-member bench had even earlier, when the case came up for decision in April this year, called for Sharif’s immediate disqualification, basing their judgment on Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution. These articles represent the remnants of the havoc wreaked by General Zia on the 1973 Constitution. Article 62 provides for a prime minister who is sadiq (truthful) and 63 that he be ameen (righteous). In the JIT report, Sharif passed neither test.

Sharif was an immensely popular national leader when he assumed office in 2013. He harboured a deep grudge against the country’s powerful military establishment. He tried to move quickly to try to establish civilian authority in areas that had long been dominated by generals, especially foreign policy. His record on this account is, however, not impressive. He leaves his office with his desire to wrest power from the generals unfulfilled. In fact, the civilian government stands highly discredited while on the other hand, the prestige, credibility and support for the army is much higher than what it has been in recent years.

During his most recent tenure, Sharif had an uneven relationship with the military. His overtures of more openness toward India backfired as generals, for their own reasons, spurned his efforts. Sharif is paying the price of his own hubris and arrogance in taking on the army — siding with the Jang/Geo group in its tangle with a DG, ISI; the Dawn Leaks case in General Raheel Sharif’s last months in office, etc. That in each of these and other similar instances, the prime minister persisted despite knowing the results of earlier encounters was inexplicable chutzpah and arrogance for which he will now have to seek redemption. He possibly failed to take cognizance of the rise of army in public esteem after Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the decline thereafter in terrorist attacks within Pakistan. The Pakistani military has seldom been able to wield as powerful a combination of policy control and popular approval and support as it does now.

Sharif’s political legacy in tatters

The Supreme Court’s decision has given a huge jolt to the fragile democratic system. And, Sharif’s political legacy is lying in tatters.

Nawaz Sharif is the tallest political leader that Pakistan has produced for at least the last 25 years. He created the Nawaz faction of the Pakistan Muslim League in the early 1990s and has led it from the front to win an unprecedented third term in the 2013 elections. Like Nawaz Sharif dominates all his opponents in the political arena, so does PML (N) stand heads over shoulders above the likes of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto.

The verdict has shaken the foundations of the PML(N) because in addition to Nawaz Sharif himself, his daughter Maryam, who was being groomed to take Nawaz’s position in due course, has also been implicated. These are times of uncertainty and unpredictability for the Sharif household and the PML(N).

For Sharif or his party, the verdict, however, did not come as a surprise. The writing on the wall was very clear after the split 3-2 verdict in April 2017.

Several concerns and doubts have been raised about the composition and functioning of the JIT. Out of the six members, one was from the Army and another from the ISI. Their presence in this body has never been explained satisfactorily except to suggest that the Pakistan army wanted to keep control over the proceedings of the investigation team. Sharif’s son had raised objections on two other members of the team who appeared to be inimically disposed towards the Sharif clan. His objections were, however, over-ruled by the judges. Hearings with the JIT were attended only by the three judges who were not convinced of the guilt of Nawaz Sharif in the initial judgment and had recommended that the matter be sent to the newly constituted JIT. They had already made their intentions clear by turning the inquiry into a zealous inquisition into Sharif’s moral character, with the head of the five-member bench disparagingly comparing the Sharif family to the mafia in “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo.

The unseemly hurry to pronounce the judgment have also marred the credibility and impartiality of the verdict.

The courtroom drama was apparently choreographed by the country’s powerful military, which has traditionally decided the fate of civilian governments. There had been hushed speculation that the court, in coming to its decision, had the tacit support and backing of the powerful generals.

Pakistan’s superior judiciary — made up of the Supreme Court and five high courts — has increasingly asserted its independence and power in recent years. But it has an abysmally poor record of defending democracy against authoritarian interventions. While there have been a handful of dissenting judges, the Supreme Court has legalised each one of Pakistan’s three successful military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999 under the “doctrine of necessity.”

Pakistan’s superior judiciary — made up of the Supreme Court and five high courts — has increasingly asserted its independence and power in recent years.

Imran Khan, the former cricketer and head of the PTI who has spearheaded the campaign against Sharif since he assumed power in 2013, stands to gain the most politically from the latter’s removal. The verdict is an undeniable political and moral victory for him. It is speculated that in his campaigns against Sharif, he received considerable support, financial and logistical, from the Pakistan army.

Carrying Sharif brand forward

Nawaz Sharif has anointed his younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, currently the Chief Minister of Punjab, as his replacement as prime minister and as the party’s standard bearer.

On one level, it was an obvious choice to keep both the party united and carry the brand Sharif forward. Immediately however the current petroleum minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi will take over as the interim prime minister. Shehbaz Sharif will have to step down as chief minister and win election to his brother’s seat in the National Assembly which should be held in the coming weeks, before taking over as the prime minister.

For the time being, the challenge for Nawaz Sharif is to steady the rocking ship of the PML(N) and steer it to calmer waters. It is expected that from now on, Nawaz, wearing the mantle of a “martyr”, will continue to supervise, direct and guide the affairs of the party. This will stand the party in good stead in the forthcoming National Assembly elections which are due to take place in less than a year.

Realising the importance of Punjab Province, Nawaz has decided to keep that also within the family by appointing Shehbaz’s son, Hamza Shabaz, who is already a member of the Provincial Assembly and has been serving as his father’s deputy, to take over as the chief minister. Punjab is a crucial state in the electoral dynamics of the country and Nawaz cannot afford to loosen control over it. There have been reports of conflicts between Hamza Shabaz and the Nawaz household but they have been strongly denied by both sides. Nawaz could be a little wary of handing over both the prime ministerial position as well as the stewardship of the most influential and powerful province to his brother’s family but at the moment he appears to have little choice.

The Army appears to have emerged as the outright winner in the aftermath of this unsavoury saga. It has been able to get rid of its bête noire who was working assiduously to enhance the civilian authority and space at the expense of the Army. The current dispensation admirably suits the army as it can control and guide decision and policy making from behind the scenes without exposing itself in the open. Some speculations that Army might move into assume direct power are misplaced. Army will not gain anything by direct rule when it has the same authority and power without any of the responsibility.

The verdict will result in increased uncertainty, confusion and unpredictability in the society and political system in Pakistan. Taken together with the rising instability due to incidence of terrorist attacks in Balochistan, Sind and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and growing unrest in Gilgit and Baltistan, the departure of Nawaz Sharif does not augur well for security and peace in Pakistan.

India needs to be extra alert

It is generally observed that whenever domestic problems erupt in Pakistan, the Army embarks on some reckless, adventurist actions against India to divert attention of the people. The army has been upping the ante for some time and increasing cease-fire violations and cross border infiltration particularly after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016. India will need to be vigilant and alert to any uptick in terrorist activities from across the border. The Indian security forces have registered several vital successes in quelling and subduing many terrorists in recent weeks. Effective action by India’s security agencies against promoters and supporters of stone-pelters has considerably brought down this activity. The Pakistan army and polity, however, would be sensing an opportunity in the wake of violence sparked after Burhan Wani’s killing. This makes it all the more imperative for India to be fully prepared to meet with any eventuality on the western front.

India’s relations with China have nosedived to their nadir in recent weeks. China could feel tempted to act in concord with Pakistan to increase pressure on India. India will need to stay on its guard and cover all its flanks to ensure that it is not taken by surprise by either of these adversaries.

Nawaz Sharif was only a hesitant and reluctant supporter of stable, peaceful relations with India. His departure should hence not be mourned in India because his term of more than four years did not witness any improvement in bilateral ties.

On the contrary relations took a definite turn for the worse after the Pathankot attack which occurred within a week of Prime Minister Modi’s bold and historic visit to Lahore and Raiwind to take part in Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding, and even more so after Burhan Wani’s killing. Sharif did try to improve ties as was evident from the Ufa Declaration of July 2015 and the decision to launch the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue on 9 December 2015. He, however, failed to carry these initiatives through and in the end was forced to jettison them by the army.

Sharif’s exit is a matter of concern for India only to the extent that it introduces greater volatility and unpredictability in the Pakistan polity which could incite the increasingly powerful army to indulge in some reckless action against India. India will have to be cautious and watchful on all fronts to protect its security and territorial integrity.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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