On August 14, 2014, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) launched a protest that would last until the Army Public School massacre on December 16, 2014.
It was a political show of unprecedented dimensions, with the protests turning ugly on a nightly basis, as the nation feasted on a pulao of contempt for parliament, rule of law and Pakistani institutions. Democrats then, as now, were principally concerned with the nature of the attack on the Pakistani system – a system still fragile, still dominated by a powerful military, and still susceptible to manipulation. For many Pakistani democrats, the 2014 dharna as it has come to be called, combined all the ingredients of past misadventures that cost the country dearly: an urban contempt for electoral leaders, a selfish and compromised opposition to the system, and enough whispers about generals offering secret nods and pats on the back to raise suspicion.
Thanks to the inherent strength of Pakistani democracy, the dharna fizzled out. Sadly, not only did it not generate any real reform, it also confirmed the biases of the two biggest Pakistani leaders. Its duration caused the PTI’s Imran Khan to be convinced even further in his unshakeable self-belief that he is a man of destiny. Its fizzling out convinced Mr Sharif even further in his belief that he is predetermined, infinitely and eternally, to be prime minister.
It is almost exactly three years since the dharna began, and in a strange sleight of hand and twist of fate, it is now Nawaz Sharif that is threatening street agitation. It is amazing what a few hours outside the prime minister’s sherwani can do, but the greatest Insafian in the country today may not be Imran Khan, nor any of his endocrinologically-challenged supporters – it may be Nawaz Sharif himself. The irony will be lost on the former prime minister, but it is not lost on those Pakistanis for whom the country and its people come before any leader, no matter how self-absorbed or narcissistic he or she may be. Just like the dharna was an illegitimate attack on an elected government then, and remains so now, three years later so too are the threats being issued by Nawaz Sharif, both the brazen, explicit ones and the subtle ones through cabinet appointments and other proxies. The democratic order that Sharif himself helped build is bigger than the disappointment of all Insafians, big and small, knowing and unknowing. One may like or dislike the context and texture of the Supreme Court decision to disqualify the former prime minister, but the system is bigger than one man.
So far, the PML-N has had three avenues through which it could have responded to the disqualification of their leader. The first was the choice of replacement prime minister and cabinet, the second are the public statements and posture in response to the disqualification and the third is the manner in which Nawaz Sharif’s family responds to the accountability process that the Supreme Court has laid out. So far the evidence from all three avenues is that Nawaz Sharif wants a fight. This is a poor strategy – for Pakistan and for Nawaz Sharif.
If we are generous, then the first avenue, of selecting a new PM and cabinet, has shown that the PML-N wants to continue to retain the semblance of competence and capability – Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi exudes both humility and a sophisticated understanding of how things work in a modern globalised economy. Yet it also shows that the party wants to assert civilian independence; that is why Khawaja Asif is the new foreign minister and why Mushahidullah Khan is back in the cabinet. The cabinet profile also shows that despite a sense of desperation, the N League is nothing if not a calculating political beast, and an inordinate representation from within the JUI-F from southern Punjab, and from Balochistan, exposes those calculations. But perhaps what the cabinet shows most of all is that elder brother Nawaz Sharif wants to prevent younger brother Shahbaz Sharif from enjoying any clout in Islamabad, at least for now.
On the second avenue, the strategy has been clear from day one. The N League wants to signal to the military and the superior judiciary that it has the capacity to engage in long-term rhetorical warfare and street agitation. No matter how gently PM Abbasi frames his policy-first posture, social media posts and news television interviews directly from Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz Sharif and/or their supporters tell a more compelling story. If the strategy is to try to bulldoze the courts into submission, the Sharifs will soon discover a thinning of their support in the national mainstream.
The irony is that more than any other political leader (with due apologies to Aitzaz Ahsan), it was Nawaz Sharif that helped build the stature of an independent judiciary. That the same judiciary has scalped him says a lot about both the tenuous nature of political fortunes and the audacity with which our judges are now endowed. The 2009 Nawaz Sharif would have loved this. The 2012 Nawaz Sharif did love this. The institutional mix in Pakistan has not changed all that much in five years. But cutting your own hand on knives that you helped sharpen will never be without pain.
The final avenue is of course the accountability process itself. N League strategists (if there is any such thing outside the person of the former PM and former first daughter) will likely advise to stack the deck in their favour from the get-go. This will further embolden the NAB-supervising Supreme Court to proactively engage through directive with the case. Legal and institutional purists will cry ‘uncle’, but the alternative is to allow the executive to essentially contaminate due process with discriminatory behaviour. It is unlikely this will be allowed to happen.
The net result of the choices that Nawaz Sharif is making is likely to be something akin to the dharna, but with multiple fronts and no clear end game in sight. Much like Imran Khan in 2014, who was blinded by his ambition, and by the poor advice of sycophants to the left and right of him, Nawaz Sharif is driving deeper and deeper into an alleyway in which not only he and his daughter may become politically immobilised, but in which whatever chances Shahbaz Sharif has to switch Pakistan to ‘Punjab speed’ are also corroded to the point of no return.
In this scenario, the N League has a critical set of decisions to make. Do the PM and the cabinet want to do Nawaz Sharif’s bidding, and act as spoilers and disruptors? Or would the new PM and his cabinet seek to contain the damage already done, and try to win over sceptics that see the PML-N’s post Panama Papers performance in Islamabad as an unmitigated disaster in service of an individual’s grasp over power?
From the very beginning of this new phase of Pakistan’s uncomfortable democratic journey in May 2013, many observers (including this one) have advised calm, and proactive competence, as the best antidote to conspiracies or provocations from unelected Pakistanis that seek to malign or disrupt democracy. The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif is a major fork in the road for democrats within the PML-N. The choice is relatively simple: continue down the path of Nawaz Sharif’s laughable defence, and try to deepen the institutional divides in the country, or avoid frontal confrontation and prove, in the next ten to twelve months, that the PML-N is a Pakistani political party invested in the economic well-being of Pakistan and the security of every Pakistani.
Few people have been blessed with the chance to serve Pakistan the way Nawaz Sharif has, with three turns in the country’s highest office. He has done some great things, but has never been allowed to complete a full turn. He now has an even rarer opportunity: to script his own legacy. He can manage a post Nawaz Sharif Pakistan that privileges stability. Or he can go full Insafian, and try to wreck the system, privileging his ego. Which will it be?
The writer is an analyst and commentator.