Despite his wife’s serious illness and confinement in London, Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan to face a NAB court. This is the correct position to take. The public approves of leaders who confront and overcome adversity instead of running away or cowering in fear. General Pervez Musharraf, on the other hand, has fled the country to avoid accountability and there is nothing anyone can do to drag him into court.
This reflects the prevailing political philosophy of accountability for elected politicians and immunity for generals and judges. The draft of a new bill on accountability approved by the PMLN government and PPP opposition in parliament specifically excludes these two categories from its purview.
Much the same sort of advice is being given to Mr Sharif by well-wishers and detractors alike: don’t rock the boat of the generals and judges, one has a gun and the other brandishes the law. But Mr Sharif is not inclined to lie down and enjoy the ride to disgrace and obscurity. He continues to proclaim his innocence and insists that the generals and judges have ganged up against him unfairly.
Mr Sharif should have thought through the consequences of his actions and policies when the same generals and judges were going after Asif Zardari’s PPP in Sindh and his interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, was egging them on rather self-righteously. Now that “they” have come after him (Chaudhry Nisar was not among those loyalists who received him at the airport) Mr Sharif cannot expect the PPP to sympathize with his cause. In fact, the PPP is saying that Mr Sharif should have been meted out the same brutal and menacing treatment by NAB that was reserved for the PPP’s Sharjeel Memon upon his return to Pakistan when he was handcuffed and led off the plane straight to prison.
The bell is now tolling for Mr Sharif. Every time he has handpicked an army chief or ISI chief, both have wilted under pressure from their institution to stand up to him and establish their independence. Every time he has succumbed to pressure from both to abandon a party loyalist in his own cause – Senators Mushaidullah, Pervez Rashid, Nihal Hashmi and Advisor Tariq Fatimi come to mind – he has made himself more and not less vulnerable to them. Unfortunately, however, when he has stood up to “them”, he has chosen the wrong issues. The institution of the Pak Army will not allow a coup-making Chief to stand trial. And if a serving Chief is compelled to publicly “regret” a policy or action by a serving Prime Minister, he is bound to more than make amends by compelling the same Prime Minister to “regret’ his decision.
Much the same approach is manifest in dealings with the judiciary. Every time Mr Sharif has joined hands with the judiciary to unfairly undermine his political opponents – as when he actively pursued the Memogate case and the sacking of a PPP prime minister – the judiciary and opposition have paid him back in the same coin. Elementary. What goes around comes around.
Mr Sharif was also wrong-footed on Panamagate from the start. His “address to the nation” was ill-advised because it brought the issue center-stage. His “explanation in parliament” about the source of his family’s wealth became a millstone around his neck when it didn’t tally with the revealed facts later. His readiness to enjoin the Supreme Court to pursue the matter and his willing acceptance of a role for the ISI and MI in the investigation are now extracting their price.
The debate over a political successor was also counterproductive. It signaled a weak, ill-fated hand. The family row related to it – Nawaz versus Shahbaz and Mariam versus Hamza – spilled into the open and made matters worse. A simple announcement immediately after the Supreme Court rejected his disqualification appeals to the effect that Nawaz Sharif would become President of the PMLN and Shahbaz Sharif would be the party’s prime minister-in-waiting after the next elections would have done the trick.
What next? In a sense, there is no alternative. Nawaz Sharif has built his populist credentials on not “taking dictation” from anyone and “never saying die”. His current “martyrdom” dividend is dependent on the perception of unfairness at the hands of the Iqama-baiting Miltablishment. To meekly succumb to the Miltablishment by adopting a policy of silence rather than vigourous disputation would be construed as a sign of abject defeat which will neither get him off the accountability hook nor assure a win for the PMLN in the next elections. The real challenge is to stand firm, fend off the corruption charges, put a lid on family disputes and keep the PMLN united until the Senate elections are won and the next elections announced at an opportune time.
This will not be easy. Nawaz Sharif could do much worse by not apologizing to Asif Zardari and joining hands to build a united political front with other political parties to thwart unaccountable power-wielders.