With his Grand Trunk Road push, Nawaz Sharif has entered into a now or never phase. He has said pretty much what he had to say, even though the details of what transpired between him and members of the powers that be – ie the establishment – at crucial points in his shortened tenure remain to be shared fully with the public.
He has not named names directly (not all of them) and has remained behind the red line of attacking specific individuals. He has also not spilled the secrets that he claims are in his heart about the motives behind the plots he says had been hatched throughout his tenure. He does point to three events however when he mentions the “large conspiracy” to undo his premiership: the rigging dharna, Dawnleaks and then finally how the Panama leaks were turned into (in his view) a get-Nawaz operation. Who did it and what happened in these episodes are things he has kept under wraps.
What is clear, however, is that during his premiership he did show a remarkable ability to keep totally quiet even when he believed, observed or witnessed attempts aimed at reducing his office to the level of a besieged island. It was this remarkable ability and nothing else that kept him in power for four unremarkable years. He understood well at that time that opening his mouth could lead to opening the exit door for him. Or at least this is what he gambled on. Just as clear, however, is that the gamble failed. Listening to his narrative of four years of conspiracies makes one wonder if keeping quiet about all these alleged unconstitutional moves when they were taking place was good strategy. It wasn’t. The sacred mandate that he is crying oceans on now should have been protected when he felt that it was under attack and was being violated. He should have risen to the occasion and showed the leadership that he now speaks of. That might have incurred costs then but those costs would have been much smaller than the one that he ended up paying eventually – disqualification and ouster.
Put differently, Nawaz Sharif’s judgment call on the ‘conspiracies’ when they were supposedly unfolding was poor. And if the conspiracies against him were taking place one after the other, as he claims, his judgment call in response to these events was repeatedly poor and below par.
This raises the fundamental question about his present judgment call to up the ante and take the battle to the next level. He is doing it by speaking about the circumstances of his eviction from power and then building the case that in Pakistan no civilian prime minister is free from the reins of power imbalance between the civil and military relations. Just as crucial is his mantra that unless this imbalance is corrected in favour of elected governments decisively, the country will not move forward. Is this a good judgment call from him? Or is it too much too late – to change the phrase according to Nawaz Sharif’s circumstances. Is he picking a fight that he cannot win just as he did not pick a fight when he could have won?
Nawaz Sharif’s camp is enthused by the response that he got from the people and as importantly from his party cadres in the heartland of his power-base. They believe that this has shown that the anti-Nawaz narrative – of corruption – has not stuck as far as their vote-bank is concerned. While this may be reassuring to the party, this does very little for the person of Nawaz Sharif and his own politics that has been cut off because of his disqualification. Nor does this do anything to the cases that NAB’s courts will hear under the tight supervision of the very judge(s) who have administered bitter and controversial justice to him.
It is a brave argument to say that Nawaz Sharif is not raising pointed questions about the manipulation of the political system by non-elected forces for his own self, his political ouster through disqualification does put a formidable limit on his ability to carry forward his agenda of ‘reforming the system’. To make it more understandable, things he could not – or did not – do to reform the system when he had all the power and influence will obviously be even harder to do when he has lost that power.
Can he get his disqualification reversed through the courts? Very unlikely. Can he get parliament to pass a law that neutralises the impact of this disqualification? Very difficult. What can he practically do to carry forward what he has championed throughout his GT Road march? He can use his centrality to the party and the loyalty of his key members to work on a legislative agenda and constitutional amendments that curb judicial activism and make it harder for strings to be pulled from behind the scenes. But this will depend on the support from other parties, the PPP to be more precise, which itself will require a grand bargain. Can Nawaz Sharif sitting outside parliament underwrite that grand bargain? This will be a very hard walk for him.
Moreover, the more he pushes the narrative that the power and hold of non-elected elements in the system needs to be curbed and neutralised the more he raises the stakes against his return and acceptability. Popularity and centrality are double-edged swords. They cut both ways. The more popular you become, the greater is the effort to demolish you. The more central you are to the success and failure of any scheme, the harder the attempt to destroy you.
It is obvious to any neutral observer why Tahirul Qadri has been brought back after a hiatus of a year and half. His rants are direct threats just as suggestions of Nawaz and family rotting in jail and losing their property and wealth from the likes of Babar Awan and Shaikh Rashid are signals that Nawaz Sharif’s new found desire to be a martyr will actually make him one – without, of course, the rewards of a martyr.
The media onslaught – one among many other such channels openly calls him murderer, killer, agent of India and recommends not so between the lines and almost daily that he should hang by the highest pole – against him has increased both in volume and in viciousness. There are clear moves and messages that if he continues to roll on the same path, his party will be torn apart and he will be permanently erased from the political map. Dead men lead no protests. Those who lose their parties lead no marches.
For now, Nawaz Sharif is on a high and considers these signs as mere bluffs that he can neutralise and deal with his vast majority in Punjab and his own government at the centre. But as time passes he will have to create a workable agenda for himself that is not just a mix of slogans, chants and catharsis. Sitting outside parliament and imagining himself to be in a position of power to direct the destiny of the political system sounds romantic, but it is cut off from political realism. Nawaz Sharif has come from the Grand Trunk Road roaring, threatening, promising, imagining. The path ahead, however, is littered with blocks of practical politics.
If Nawaz Sharif does not have a realistic plan to overcome these impediments, he might find himself standing the middle of a Grand Trump Road, on which all his aspirations and desires are trumped by the forces he showed no wisdom in dealing with when he was in the PM House.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.