By Shahab Jafry
He (Nawaz Sharif) understood, all too well, the shifting ideologies of Pakistan’s popular media and the fickle nature of the general, voting public.
Despite his great fall, Nawaz Sharif has managed to exploit faultlines in Pakistani politics to come out on top in the battle of narratives, perhaps even reviving his party’s chances in Punjab in the election due on July 25. His conspiracy theory was always going to be a hard sell. It was a corruption case, after all, involving unexplained transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars, not a political trial about some illegitimate overthrow. He had, quite simply, got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Even his closest aides, including little brother Shahbaz, advised against it and distanced themselves from Sharif as he imposed his one-point storyline on the party’s election campaign. So the army and judiciary had conspired against him because of his position on militancy, terrorism, India, and that was it.
But the Panama case erupted in 2016 when some foreign journalists published leaked information about off shore companies, belonging to people from all over the world, in some foreign newspaper. Even the most fantastic tales of ISI’s ‘long hand’ would not lay this at the Pakistani military’s door. The investigation and long trials of the next two years found Sharif, and his family, unable to account for the money that got them luxury real estate in upscale London neighbourhoods; hence the conviction.
Yet Sharif threw this squarely at the military, and went to town on it. Sure, there had been a fair bit of friction with the brass, especially around the Dawn Leaks time, but Sharif never seemed too upset about it. Taking Musharraf to court must have ruffled some feathers in the military, but it was nothing that could not be handled. Besides he was never tried for the October 12 coup that threw out Sharif but the November 7 emergency almost a decade later, so it was only so much about constitutional justice to begin with.
Even though Sharif’s goose appeared pretty much cooked as the trial went on, there was the feeling that somebody somewhere wanted the noose to tighten more quickly around the former prime minister’s neck. In the end, he used this to his advantage.
By blaming the so-called establishment, Sharif knew he’d provoke a strong reaction. And, of course, they duly obliged, eventually helping him turn the spotlight from his proven money laundering – an open and shut case – to a freshly constructed crusader paying the price of fighting for democracy and all that.
His plan was vindicated, ironically, just as he was arrested upon arrival and sent to prison for 11 years. Once he’d committed to returning for the arrest, contrary to rumours that he might ‘run like last time’ (when Musharraf exiled him for a decade), his story seemed ending. But people wondered ‘why go this far?’ when his press conference from London, on the eve of his return, was mysteriously taken off air from practically all channels. And many asked ‘who’s doing this?’ when hundreds of PML-N workers were suddenly arrested overnight to discourage a ‘peaceful march to the airport’ to greet Sharif. Surely no caretaker government could have such teeth. So it must be the behind-the-scenes people once again. But then, they asked, ‘isn’t this just what Sharif was saying?’ On ‘judgment day’ itself, security forces picked up hundreds more PML-N workers, shut down phone lines (even internet in some parts), and blocked all roads to the Lahore airport. They also kept PML-N supporters from outside the city from crossing its entry points. Most airtime went to the three bomb blasts that killed well over a hundred people.
Since security forces were clearly tasked with keeping PML-N workers from mobilising, it came down to a show of numbers at the end of the day. And though reaching the airport was quite impossible, party leaders still managed to rally tens of thousands of workers even at the cost of arrest and compromising the most crucial part of the campaign.
Prominent TV hosts, forced onto the streets for their prime-time coverage because of the information blackout, could be seen ranting about their channels not running their coverage. By the time Sharif was taken to
Adiala Jail, reporters were quoting numerous ‘converts’ on the streets, who had changed their mind about him. It seems Sharif bet on his understanding of the establishment, built over decades of experience of course, and picked what turned out to be just the right nerve for his purpose. By forcing ‘them’ to show who is boss, he ensured an outcome he could manipulate to his advantage. He also understood, all too well, the shifting ideologies of Pakistan’s popular media and the fickle nature of the general, voting public.
Taking his corruption out of the main argument completely is an achievement in itself. But he has also repositioned his party, once long ago a darling of the establishment, right into its crosshairs; while engineering a legacy for himself. And as the officers and bureaucrats that hastened his fall slowly fade away, he will only bury his claws deeper into the soft underbelly of Pakistan’s democracy, which he has just played on like a master who takes something even from a completely lost hand.
Shahab Jafry is a journalist based in Pakistan