A show of power against . . . nobody | Shaheen Sehbai


Pakistan’s political history is full of power shows, street rallies and long marches, some successful, some destructive. But what has now been unleashed is something that is basically perverse.

Ousted and disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cynically calls it a ‘drive back home’. On his first stop in Rawalpindi he called it a referendum against the Supreme Court, stealing of his mandate. He did not say by whom.

Then he seeks the peoples support to undo the ‘wrong’ but he fails to expose the conspiracy he has been talking about. “You guess it and you know it, do something about it,” is his message.

Others see his march as his last ditch attempt to pressurize the courts, and indirectly the Pakistan Army, to undo the devastating decision against him and to preempt NAB cases that could land him and his family in jail.

How this march is different is obvious. Sharif very innocently, and with a jilted lover’s face, ignores every proven charge to complain that he has been wronged.

The ousted leader has used such street power several times in the past, as have others including late Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan.

Sharif’s last such outing was in 2009 when he started a march to seek restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry, sacked by General Musharraf in 2007.

Immediately the then army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani intervened and the Chief Justice was restored before Nawaz could leave his stop over at Gujranwala. It was a big success for Nawaz and a blow to President Zardari.

But by his decision he had allowed the army to put back its stamp on national politics, regaining ground lost during Musharraf’s nine year rule. Pindi boys had come back on the driving seat.

Ironically then Nawaz was fighting for the judiciary. His march now is obviously against the judges, a personal battle for political survival.

Traditionally long marches in Pakistan have produced destructive results against democracy. In 1958, Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan of the then Frontier province led a march from Peshawar to Rawalpindi and military rule was instantly imposed by General Ayub Khan.

Street shows by the opposition led to General Ziaul Haq’s 11-year long martial law. In the 90s Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif alternatively took to the streets and toppled each other, mostly with the help of the establishment.

In all these demos, there was some democratic principle or point of law or ethics involved. Mostly it was rigging in polls or corruption was the theme but this time it is the reverse — a proven and convicted corrupt leader is using street power to wash away his sins.

In 2009 Nawaz marched for the judiciary and succeeded. In 2014 Imran Khan marched against rigged elections and failed. Imran again marched on Islamabad in 2016 against corruption and won.

What cannot be ignored is that while street power has played a significant role in changing political fortunes, it was always the deep establishment — army and judiciary — that took key life and death decisions.

What cannot be ignored is that while street power has played a significant role in changing political fortunes, it was always the deep establishment — Army and judiciary — that took key life-and-death decisions
This time the lion was injured, ‘The unburied lion’ as one op-ed article title said. It was purely on points of law that he was caught. Yet his power base was not touched.

Contrary to the past, Nawaz Sharif’s protest now is to save his own skin and his family as no larger democratic principle is involved. He is not fighting for something sacrosanct or universally sacred.

Talking about his lost mandate is blatantly misleading as he has been personally caught cheating. His party is still in power.

Interestingly the two key players of the establishment are either neutral or quietly indifferent, not interested in any NRO or bailout. His show on the streets thus has no powerful underwriters. It could misfire big time.

No number of people on the streets can overturn a court conviction if no powerful lobby wants to use it for its own vested interests or to assert itself.

Nawaz keeps talking of a deep conspiracy but has not revealed anything as he wants to charge sheet the army and the judiciary. His dilemma is that publicly he cannot accuse anyone.

He has lost his office and his party. He fears the family will also slip out of his hands. By showing a large following on the streets he wants to re-establish his hold but the odds are heavily tilted against him.

Pakistan is getting back on the rails of rule of law and accountability of the corrupt, strong and the mighty. This is a positive sign and this train should not be derailed.

The writer is a senior journalist. Twitter: @Ssehbai1

Published in Daily Times, August 11th 2017.