I never thought a day would come when I would feel sorry for Nawaz Sharif. Here is a man whose political career was launched with the blessings and support of Zia-ul-Haq in the early 1980s when the dictator plucked the young businessman out of obscurity to make him Punjab’s finance minister. Soon he was elevated to the province’s chief ministership. He leveraged both jobs into boosting his family’s business interests.
He was supported by the security establishment in forming an alliance against Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, and won the 1990 polls. After being forced out in 1993, he remained a creature of the establishment until he fell out with Musharraf in 1999, and was ousted in a coup and forced into exile. Earlier, he had expressed a desire to make constitutional changes that would make him “commander of the faithful”.
I wrote many columns opposing Sharif’s policies, including his yellow cab scheme that forced nationalised banks to hand out virtually unsecured loans for the purchase of cars that were supposed to run as taxis. More recently, I wrote against the desecration of Lahore’s historic monuments by the Punjab government as it pushed its Orange Train through the old city.
Reading Naseem Zehra’s well-researched account of the Kargil fiasco, I was struck by the fact that Sharif had indeed received a briefing about the operation, contrary to what he has been saying for years. Yet he was obviously too obtuse to grasp the implications of a major incursion across the Line of Control: after being flattered by Musharraf and his coterie of generals, and told he would be remembered forever as the liberator of Kashmir, he gave them free rein.
When in power, Sharif virtually ignored Parliament, and relied on family members and a small inner circle to implement questionable policies. His foot-dragging over the National Action Plan has permitted extremism to flourish.
Given all this, why should I waste any sympathy on Nawaz Sharif?
I suppose it’s because I hate seeing a man being kicked by his enemies when he’s down. Sharif’s wife is struggling against cancer in London while his presence was urgently needed in Pakistan by his party in the midst of a faltering election campaign. I can imagine how torn he must feel.
For months now, he has faced multiple charges of money laundering, barred from Parliament on bizarre charges, and dragged through a media trial. Many of his party’s candidates seem to have been pressured to abandon him and switch sides. As the Economist wrote in a recent article on Pakistan:
“…Mr Sharif returned to power in 2013 eager to assert civilian control of foreign and security policy, which the Army regards as its exclusive domain. In reply, the Army undermined Mr Sharif, backing a months-long street protest by a big Opposition party (the PTI) aimed at overthrowing his government. It also refused the government’s request for help in dispersing another group of protesters that had blocked a busy intersection last year. A general was photographed at the scene handing money to the protesters…”
“…PTI has benefited from a wave of defections from the PML(N) in… Punjab. In private, many politicians admit to being pressed, in some cases with the threat of corruption charges, to leave the PML(N)…”
Clearly, some quarters don’t want Nawaz Sharif to be allowed back in power. Predictably, a significant section of the media have signed up to this consensus. The fingerprints of our political engineers are all over this campaign.
But beyond Nawaz Sharif’s political fate, we ought to be concerned about the effect this meddling is having on the electorate. Whether the generals and judges like it or not, Nawaz Sharif remains popular with millions, especially in Punjab. And while his party’s ratings might have dropped in the face of the negative campaign launched against him, he remains a force to reckon with in Pakistani politics.
As his supporters watch the unedifying spectacle of their leader’s persecution, the danger is that many might be disillusioned by the whole electoral exercise. We have seen several senior PML(N) candidates being blocked from standing by contempt charges, or by Election Commission officials who have refused to accept their nominations on spurious grounds.
Despite its regular interventions that have warped Pakistan’s political development, the Army remains a popular institution. The judiciary, too, has gained the respect of many through its recently discovered confidence after years of granting legitimacy to military usurpers. But now, many say that they risk losing this goodwill by what is perceived by some as support for groups opposed to the PML(N).
In my experience after observing many elections, it is not easy to rig the vote except in very closely contested constituencies. But the same result can be achieved through blocking and bullying candidates before election day. That’s what seems to be going on now.