Former Pakistan prime minister (PM), Nawaz Sharif’s, defiant roar summarises both his biography and Pakistan’s history over the past three decades. The occasion was an opposition conference on video on September 20. Quite apart from what the former PM said, the occasion was significant. The conference was hosted by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It brought together all the major opposition parties and leaders. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) — Nawaz Sharif’s party — coordinating action with the PPP has not been seen for some time. These two together make up a large chunk of the political spectrum and both are now increasingly led by charismatic next generation leaders — Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz and Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. What is common to both is that they attach to their names that of a parent who was the political face of Pakistan for long periods of its history — Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. This is dynastic politics, of course, but it is also real politics.
What made the news most was Nawaz Sharif’s broadside against Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government, of course, but more against those “who installed Imran Khan and who manipulated elections to bring an incapable man like him into power and thus, destroyed the country”. Khan’s failures of economic and foreign policy, on Kashmir, Pakistan’s international isolation, alienation from Saudi Arabia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the stagnation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), thus formed one aspect of the speech. The real firepower was in the references to the erosion and throttling of democracy, that “every child knows that no prime minister has been allowed to complete five years in power”, of a “state above the state”.
All this refers to the role of the military — euphemistically called the establishment — in politics. What has been less reported than his references to the military and the generals were the comments about the judiciary and how it acts in concert with the military.
Nawaz Sharif has been PM longer than anyone else — in all over nine years but spread over three terms in which the first (November 1990-July 1993) and the third (June 2013-July 2017) are separated by a quarter of a century. While the military, or at least certain generals, had much to do with his meteoric rise through the 1980s, once PM, Nawaz Sharif acted as if he was in charge. His first tenure ended, therefore, with a bitter feud with the president; the second with a coup after General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil misadventure; the third with what amounted to a judicial coup – or so at least many in Pakistan felt. In each of the three terms, his party had a majority but this was no defence against the forces arrayed against him.
The third term was marked by near constant friction with the military on a whole range of issues. A close political associate and astute observer, former foreign minister Sartaj Aziz, has recently written: “Nawaz Sharif’s transition away from the military establishment grew incrementally when his core political interests or stakes were threatened by the absence of real democracy”. Nawaz Sharif’s second and third terms stand out for his willingness to walk Pakistan’s most dangerous minefield — relations with India. That story is well known. The point, however, is that Nawaz Sharif understood intuitively that his authority as PM could be cemented only by limiting the role of the military and for this to happen some improvement of relations, if not normalisation with India, was essential. Sartaj Aziz also notes, “Fundamentally, Nawaz Sharif did not fully comprehend the depth and strength of de facto forces and also ignored the importance of a broader coalition of political forces for establishing the supremacy of democratic institutions.”
Whether this present front of opposition unity and better atmospherics between the leaders of the PML-(N) and the PPP, therefore, heralds something new happening in Pakistan is too early to say. Nawaz Sharif stands disqualified from politics for life and effectively in exile. Most Pakistani politicians in the opposition are fearful of the skeletons in their cupboards and the risk of jail or worse is real. Yet for all this both the PML-(N) and the PPP have remained largely intact with no major desertions or breakaways in the past two years. Khan’s problems, on the other hand, are mounting — not the least of which is managing the growing clamour in public discourse that the military is too involved in national affairs. Nawaz Sharif’s speech is designed clearly at advancing this discourse. Certainly he knows that what displeases the military more than anything else is an open discussion of its political role. Possibly he believes that agitation on this front will increase pressure — both on Khan and the military — and mistakes happen under pressure. The September speech may well mark Nawaz Sharif’s fourth foray into Pakistan’s murky terrain of curbing the military. If that is so, then describing Nawaz Sharif as epitomising a man with his future behind him may well sum up his biography as also Pakistan’s political history.
T C A Raghavan is a former high commissioner to Pakistan. He is currently director-general, Indian Council of World Affairs
The views expressed are personal