Deal Politics – Najam Sethi

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Conspiracy theories of a “deal” between the Sharifs and the Miltablishment originate mainly from media touts of the Miltablishment or PTI. They allude to secret meetings between Miltablishment emissaries and Shahbaz Sharif focused on the “voluntary” exile and silence of Nawaz and Mariam, plus a pledge not to undermine the Miltablishment or destabilize the Imran Khan regime, in exchange for some relief from NAB prosecution of the Sharif family and an enlarged role for Shabaz Sharif in the affairs of the current parliament and future government.

But since the Miltablishment must always come out looking good and the Sharifs as smelling foul, Nawaz and Mariam are “reported” to be desperate to get off the hook. One TV tout recently assured his viewers that the Sharifs had agreed to part with “trillions in looted money” in a plea bargain for freedom from jail and prosecution. This is aimed at confirming the PTI narrative that the Sharifs have stolen oceans of money and are ready to admit guilt by returning some of it. In one variant of the deal syndrome, Shahbaz Sharif is being encouraged to “break” with Nawaz Sharif so that he can curry favour with the Miltablishment.

The truth of the matter is more complex. Consider

The Miltablishment is “soft” on Shahbaz and “hard” on Mariam and Nawaz for sound reason. Shahbaz has always advocated a “big brother” role for the Miltablishment in government and advised Nawaz not to get entangled with Miltablishment demands and priorities in practical recognition of its enormous and unaccountable power. But Nawaz has constantly sought to establish the hegemony of parliament, prime minister and cabinet over the organs of the state who are constitutionally obliged to obey the “sanctity of the vote”. On three occasions in the past – 1993, 1999 and 2017 — he has lost his prime ministership by insisting on the primacy of this constitutional position. Now both he and his daughter are in prison, having consciously returned to Pakistan from a temporary reprieve in London, to stand up and face the consequences of demanding their democratic rights. Nawaz’s incarceration has adversely impacted his health while Mariam’s courage in resistance has landed her in the clink.

In the event, father and daughter have received succor from large swathes of Pakistanis, suggesting that the anti-Sharif “corruption” narrative has failed to take root beyond the PTI’s die-hard voter. That is why the last election was stolen from them and that is why efforts are now underway to neutralize their opposition to the “selected” government propped up by the Miltablishment. Therefore, it is not the Sharifs who are fishing for “deals” but the Miltablishment that is constantly baiting them.

In this unfolding scenario, the role of the judiciary in general, the visible conduct of certain judges and biases of judgment have been noted with increasing unease. That is why all potential “deals” with the Miltablishment involve equally “suitable” decisions from the judiciary. Today, there is no merit in Nawaz Sharif’s application for relief on health grounds but tomorrow if a “deal” is materialized the same grounds could become suddenly relevant. Today, the argument goes, judge Arshad Malik’s video is suspect. Tomorrow, if a “deal” is signed, it could lead to bail, if not quashing of Nawaz Sharif’s conviction, in the Avenfield Flats case.

This leads to one question: why is the Miltablishment keen on a “deal” with Nawaz?

There are two main reasons for this initiative. The first is the abysmal failure of the Imran Khan regime to deliver the Miltablishment agenda of good governance and development without which no artificial political dispensation can last for long. The second is the nature of the geo-strategic crises facing Pakistan which can only be contested successfully on the basis of a national consensus which is lacking because of Imran Khan’s vindictive, single minded pursuit of one sided “accountability” via NAB.

The Miltablishment’s dilemma is accentuated by the fact that the more the judiciary bends before its will, the more it loses credibility; the more Imran Khan’s “selected” government flounders, the more its puppeteer is discredited; and, by corollary, the more Nawaz and Mariam Sharif’s narrative gains in the popular imagination.

Until now, the Miltablishment has got away with its political shenanigans because two opposition leaders have gone against the grain of popular opinion. Asif Zardari and Shahbaz Sharif have not sided with Nawaz and Maulana Fazal ur Rhman in launching a popular movement to dislodge the PTI government. Amidst the mounting economic crisis, a great opportunity presented itself recently for agitation when the Miltablishment-PTI junta was all at sea in the confrontation with Modi’s India. But both shied away from exploiting it.

That may change in time to come when another such crisis hits Pakistan. That is why the Miltablishment is keen to cover its flanks by doing some sort of a deal with Nawaz Sharif. But the longer Nawaz and Mariam hold out for their own terms, the greater the likelihood that they will emerge as the ultimate winners.