The deep state strikes back

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Nawaz Sharif addressing an on-the-road rally in Gujrat, Pakistan, on August 11. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP

Hussain Nawaz. The Panama Papers leak revealed that Nawaz Sharif's two sons and daughter owned offshore companies and property in London. Photo: B.K. Bangash/AP

Maryam Nawaz. The Panama Papers leak revealed that Nawaz Sharif's two sons and daughter owned offshore companies and property in London. Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leader, at a rally in Islamabad on July 30. Photo: AAMIR QURESHIAFP

Wajid Zia, the head of the Joint Investigation Team, arrives at the Supreme Court to present the final report of the investigation into the alleged money laundering against Nawaz Sharif and his family in Islamabad on July 10. Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

The military apparatus gains the upper hand again after the Supreme Court disqualifies Nawaz Sharif, a democratically elected Prime Minister, from continuing in politics for life on charges of corruption.

THE RESIGNATION OF NAWAZ SHARIF AS Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the last week of July, after a Supreme Court bench disqualified him from holding public office for life on charges of corruption, marks the end of yet another chapter in the country’s turbulent political history. The charges against Nawaz Sharif stemmed from revelations in the “Panama Papers” leak that his three children, two sons and a daughter, owned offshore companies and property in London. Nawaz Sharif himself was not named in the Panama Papers, but the judge disqualified him for not being “honest” in the disclosure of his assets. The Supreme Court based its judgment, which many in the country consider as flawed, on two very controversial Articles of the Pakistani Constitution, Articles 62 and 63.

‘Truthful and trustworthy’

A clause in Article 62 states that a representative of the people should be sadiq and ameen (truthful and trustworthy). This clause was added during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule as part of his efforts to Islamise the politics of the country. Article 63 states that an elected representative can be removed from office if found guilty of “contempt of jurisdiction”. The previous government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had tried to have the offending Articles removed from the Constitution. Nawaz Sharif, who was in the opposition then, had objected to the move arguing that a leader of an Islamic state should indeed be honest and trustworthy. Now, with the tables turned on him, the opposition is in no mood to support the ruling party in its demand for the abrogation of the offending Articles.

The five-member bench ruled that Nawaz Sharif and his children had failed to provide a paper trail to justify their holdings abroad. This has been contested by the Sharif family. Nawaz Sharif had even produced a letter from a leading member of the Qatari royal family that stated that he had lent money to Nawaz Sharif for his foreign investments. The bias of the bench was obvious when its head compared the Prime Minister’s family to the “Corleones”, the fictional mafia family in the Godfather movies, at the beginning of the corruption trial.

The charges of corruption against the Sharifs are not new. It was well known that the family owned flats in an exclusive London neighbourhood. A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) appointed by the Supreme Court provided the evidence of the alleged corruption. The JIT consisted of two members from the military intelligence services and a third member known to be sympathetic to the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led by Imran Khan.

The Prime Minister had complained that the JIT was resorting to phone tapping on a large scale. Nawaz Sharif and his lawyers also accused the JIT of browbeating and harassing witnesses. The Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s top anti-corruption agency, to file charges against the Prime Minister and his family. The NAB was created during the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the express purpose of reining in civilian politicians opposed to military rule. The court also ordered the removal of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar from Parliament. Dar was a business associate of the Sharif family.

Nawaz Sharif hails from one of the richest families in Pakistan. His family’s fortune grew further after he entered politics in the early 1990s as a protege of the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, who sent Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto to the gallows and played a big role in converting the country into a virtual theocratic state. Nawaz Sharif has held the post of Prime Minister for a record three times, but he has the dubious distinction of having failed to complete his full term in office every time, thanks to the powers that be.

Imran Khan, who was responsible for initially dragging the case against Nawaz Sharif to the Supreme Court, has been accused of having undeclared assets abroad and getting undisclosed foreign funding for his political activities. Most members of the Pakistani elite are known to own property in England and other countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

Most observers and commentators in Pakistan and outside see the hand of the powerful security establishment behind the ouster of a democratically elected Prime Minister. Similar corruption charges were made against the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, when the PPP was in power. In 2012, the Supreme Court, led at the time by the controversial Justice Iftiqar Chaudhry, dismissed Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for contempt of court after he refused to reopen an old case of corruption against President Asif Ali Zardari. The Army had wanted the inquiry to be reopened. Justice Chaudhry duly obliged as the Army had played a role in reinstalling him as Chief Justice. Very rarely has Pakistan’s higher judiciary moved against the many illegal and arbitrary acts perpetrated by the country’s military. It has glossed over all the military coups that overthrew civilian governments. The judiciary has been a willing ally of the military during critical periods of Pakistan’s history. No civilian Prime Minister in Pakistan’s history has been able to complete a full five-year term in office.

Nawaz Sharif was removed unceremoniously in a military coup in 1999 by the then Army chief, Gen. Musharraf. His major crime in the eyes of the powerful military establishment at that time was demanding civilian supremacy over the Army and a stated desire for peace with India. The United States, which despite its strained relationship with Pakistan, has always sided with the Army when it comes to the crunch. A former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and South-East Asia, Vikram J. Singh, has said that the ouster of Nawaz Sharif once again “means even more power in the military’s hands because the military is truly the only institution in Pakistan that is not in turmoil”. When Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister for a third time, in 2013, the Army had a free hand in conducting anti-terrorism operations, which have now spread to all parts of the country. In Balochistan, the Army is confronting separatism as well as terrorism with a heavy hand.

Re-establish civilian supremacy

Nawaz Sharif returned to power in 2013 promising to re-establish civilian supremacy in the politics of the country once and for all. He had plans to improve relations with India, but the rise of a Hindu nationalism embodied by the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi put paid to his plans of strengthening political and economic relations between the two countries. Pakistanis, despite their tolerance of military rule, like to boast that their electorate had never elected a party that was inspired by religious fundamentalism. Parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami have always been fringe players in Pakistani politics.

Nawaz Sharif represented Pakistan’s business and mercantile interests. The primary aim of his centre-right government was to strengthen the economy of the country. He was successful in this effort to an extent. Under his watch, some large infrastructural projects were completed and the power outages that plagued Pakistani cities became less frequent. The economy received a long-term boost after China announced its Belt and Road Initiative, an important component of which is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China is expected to invest more than $50 billion in the project.

The deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with India helped the entrenched military security apparatus in Pakistan regain the upper hand. The Army, in the eyes of Pakistani public, is still viewed as the guarantor of the Islamic state.

The Army leadership had been unhappy with Nawaz Sharif’s attempts to reach out to a generally recalcitrant Indian political leadership. The situation in Kashmir, coupled with terror attacks on Indian military targets, had worsened bilateral relations, in the process strengthening the hands of the hawkish military establishment in Islamabad. The military establishment was also not happy with the civilian government’s reluctance to push the Pakistan Army into the Saudi Arabian-sponsored sectarian war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia had requested that the Pakistan Army only send its Sunni recruits to fight in Yemen.

Nawaz Sharif had also initially denied the former Army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, permission to head the Saudi-inspired “Islamic NATO” force consisting of Sunni Muslim nations in West Asia and North Africa. In the process, Nawaz Sharif rubbed Saudi Arabia, his erstwhile patron, the wrong way. He had lived in Saudi Arabia when he was exiled by Gen. Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif had angered the top Army brass when his senior Cabinet colleagues questioned the military’s commitment to confront some Islamist groups, known to enjoy the patronage of the security establishment. He was forced to fire his Information Minister and two top aides after the military took umbrage at the report appearing in the media.

Imran Khan’s role

The military’s major pawn in the political game seems to be Imran Khan and the PTI. After his relatively good showing in the national elections, Imran Khna never allowed Nawaz Sharif to settle down in office completely. He first claimed that the 2013 elections, which elected Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, were rigged. Along with another disaffected clerical cum political figure, Muhammad Tahir al Qadri, Imran Khan staged massive protests in Islamabad and elsewhere. Nawaz Sharif survived those challenges but was suddenly hit by “Panamagate” last year; the PTI organised another round of massive street protests. Those opposed to Nawaz Sharif, who included influential sections of the “deep state”, seized upon the issue.

In India, although many of its influential citizens figure in the “Panamagate” revelations, the investigation agencies and the government at the Centre have relegated the Panamagate dossier to the back burner. In Pakistan, the judiciary aided and abetted by a host of other players, has been able to claim the scalp of a sitting Prime Minister. On paper, Imran Khan should be the biggest gainer from the forced resignation of his bete noire, Nawaz Sharif. He has the tacit support of the military, the bureaucracy and the security establishment. But he lacks grass roots support in Punjab and Sindh provinces. The Army may not trust him at the helm as he is known to have an independent streak. Imran Khan frequently rails at U.S. policies in the region. Nawaz Sharif once played the role Imran Khan is playing now.

Nawaz Sharif had taken the military’s help in his long running feud with Benazir Bhutto. But after his ouster by Musharraf in 1999, he became a changed man, no longer apparently beholden to the military. Nawaz Sharif since then has showed that he is willing to put up a fight to ensure that the powerful security establishment does not freely trample on the rights of democratically elected governments.

Review petition

Nawaz Sharif has decided against fading away quietly into the sunset. He appointed one of his confidants, Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi, as Prime Minister and then embarked on a long march from the capital to rally his core base in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province and the arbiter of the country’s political destiny when elections are allowed to be held. There are powerful forces in the country that want to ensure that Nawaz Sharif is barred from politics permanently. The NAB is being used assiduously for this purpose. Nawaz Sharif has so far refused to appear before it despite being served notices. The former Prime Minister has filed a review petition before a full bench of the Supreme Court seeking a stay in the Bureau’s investigation of cases filed against him. The NAB has reopened an old case on the orders of the Supreme Court against Nawaz Sharif although the Lahore High Court had given him a clean chit some years ago.

If the NAB is successful in barring Nawaz Sharif permanently from contesting elections, the former Prime Minister is likely to designate one of his immediate family members to stand in for him in the general election scheduled to be held in 2018. There are reports that his wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, is going to contest the byelection for his seat. There are rumblings within the ruling party and the first family. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was widely expected to replace his elder brother as Prime Minister. But that has not happened. Pakistan politics will witness more tumult and churning in the coming months. The military establishment could remain the final arbiter in Pakistani politics for the foreseeable future.