Is Sharif being punished for supporting better Indo-Pak relationship?

Pak army is adamant relations with India are its business and the civilian set-up exists to implement its policy. But, Sharif set about enhancing civilian authority, before the confrontation with them

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI
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Ashis Ray

Former Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, 68, and his politician daughter, Maryam, face 10 years and seven years in prison respectively, having been sentenced by the country’s National Accountability Bureau court. They have, though, not shied away from the verdict. Both flew back to Pakistan from London, where Sharif’s wife Kulsoom has been hospitalised for several months with reportedly a serious illness.

Sharif was found guilty of failing to explain ownership of flats in Avenfield House in the upmarket district of Mayfair in London “disproportionate to his known sources of income”. Interestingly, on the direct charge of corruption, he was found innocent. Maryam, it was ruled, “aided, assisted, abetted, attempted and acted in conspiracy with her father”.

In 2016, leaked documents known as Panama Papers suggested Sharif’s sons were involved in offshore companies which purchased luxury apartments in London. While the Narendra Modi government refrained from acting against Indians named in the expose, the Pakistani “establishment” did so with remarkable alacrity.

Last year, the Pakistani Supreme Court ousted Sharif from office for not being sadiq (truthful) and ameen (righteous). It convicted him of not declaring in his nomination papers when he stood for election in 2013 that he had been a director in a Dubai-based company owned by one of his sons and drew an income from it. Documents appeared to suggest he had recorded these and also submitted he had not claimed the remuneration owed to him.

There has long been a suspicion the Sharif family’s businesses benefited from its proximity to the late Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and thereafter from running the Punjab and federal administrations. A question, though, lingers as to whether evidence beyond doubt was found to warrant the severe judgements against the Sharifs?

Sharif was a protégé of Zia-ul-Haq. This is how he joined the Muslim League in 1976 and became chief minister of Punjab in 1985. Yet, a feeling of impotence when he became prime minister in 1990 persuaded him to explore curbing the army’s overbearing presence.

Predictably, he entered and exited governance at the army’s whim and fancy. The establishment – which is the army and its all-encompassing representatives in the civilian apparatus – ejected him in 1993, before bringing him back in 1997. He was then overthrown in a coup by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. With an execution hanging over him, he was, however, allowed to go into exile to Saudi Arabia in 2000, only to return as prime minister in 2013.

Sharif indicated keenness to strengthen economic ties with India. PV Narasimha Rao as prime minister acknowledged this, notwithstanding the fact that Pakistani Punjab was a staging post for the Khalistan movement when Sharif was chief minister. In return, Sharif appreciated Rao’s subtle support for him.

Sharif has in reality been punished for wanting to be pally with India. The army is stuck in what it parrots as the unfinished agenda of Partition, namely Kashmir, and a 1,000-year war with India. The India-China example of peace and tranquillity and putting vexed issues on the back burner is anathema to it

In the 1997 election, he included better relations with India as a goal in the Muslim League manifesto, much against a majority of his party colleagues’ wishes. While in the army’s game of musical chairs it was his turn to be prime minister, Sharif won the election easily and believes it proved the people of Pakistan wanted peace with India. He, then, set about enhancing civilian authority, before the confrontation with Musharraf led to his unseating.

The Pakistani army is adamant relations with India are its business and the civilian set-up exists only to implement its policy. In such a scenario, Sharif’s presence at Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony in 2014, his overtures towards India, not to mention welcoming the latter in Pakistan in 2015, were irksome initiatives as far as the men in uniform were concerned.

So, Sharif has, in reality, been punished for wanting to be pally with India. The army is stuck in what it parrots as the unfinished agenda of Partition, namely Kashmir, and a 1,000-year war with India. The India-China example of peace and tranquillity and putting vexed issues on the back burner is anathema to it.

The army expects the NAB convictions will convince Pakistani voters before this month’s general election that Sharif and his family are utterly crooked and thereby damage his popularity and neutralise him as a political symbol. Media has been shackled. It remains to be seen if the Muslim League is permitted to cash-in in the event of a sympathy wave for the Sharifs.

Meanwhile, over 60 independents – said to be proxies for cricketer-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party – are in the fray. These candidates have resources and a hidden helping hand behind them.

The main battleground is obviously the populous and predominant province of Punjab. Here, the Muslim League has held sway. At the same time, a swathe of soldiers and their families hail from central and northern Punjab, where the army is attempting to make an impact against the Sharifs. Defeat will mean curtains for them. But what if Pakistanis see the imprisonment of Nawaz and Maryam as beinsaf or unjust?

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