By Rana Banerji*
Though not entirely unexpected, the five-nil Supreme Court denouement disqualifying Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as Member of Parliament for an unspecified period came on 28 July 8 2017. It deemed as `assets’ even `un-withdrawn receivables from Capital FZE, Jebel Ali, UAE’, which were not disclosed in Sharif’s nomination papers filed for Pakistan’s 2013 general elections, thereby categorising him as neither `sadiq’ (honest) nor `ameen’ (trustworthy) under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution. The Court directed the National Accountability Bureau to send references, within six weeks, on the acquisition of the Mayfair flats in London, and other inquiries into the shady business dealings of the prime minister’s family to Accountability Courts, which have been required to complete trials `within six months’.
This brings to a rather ignominious end, perhaps, the political career of a politician once spawned by a military dictator, who however, successfully transited to a resilient, mass-based politician. He cocked a snook, several times, at the powerful military establishment. Taken to Attock jail in chains after the Musharraf coup in October 1999, he came back from a ten-year disqualification, albeit with assistance from the Saudi Royal family, to become prime minister thrice, though he could not survive the jinx of unfinished terms. Today, Nawaz Sharif may be rueing having spurned the April 2010 advice of Senate Chairman, Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) Raza Rabbani when as Opposition leader he did not help forge a consensus to do away with Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution as part of the 18th Amendment.
Though the Generals maintained a low profile as the Panama papers’ trial came to a head, it was quite clear to a judiciary traditionally trained to look over its shoulder, where sympathies of this powerful institution lay. During the hearings, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) unusually expressed concern about the `need for probity in public life’ and `the importance of ending corruption’. After the 202nd Corps Commanders’ Conference at General Headquarters on 25 April, the ISPR again clarified that the military would play its ‘due role’ in the Joint Investigation. The JIT included two uniformed representatives, Brig (Retd) Nauman Saeed (ISI) and Brig Kamran Khurshid (MI).
Ironically, the judgment was spearheaded by Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, who cited Balzac’s quote from Mario Puzo’s novel, Godfather in the preamble of his April 20 `minority’ or `dissenting’ order, referring to the unseemly wealth acquired by the Sharifs, as constituting “a crime” which lay.. “behind every great fortune”. Khosa – the son-in- law of late Chief Justice Nasim Hassan Shah, who gave Nawaz Sharif a temporary reprieve in June 1993 when then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dissolved the National Assembly, using the powers under the now deleted Art 58(2)(b) – is likely to become the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in January, 2018. Perhaps the bumbling defence put up by Sharif’s attorneys, the repeated obfuscation and subterfuge employed to hide the `money trail’ leading to the London flats turned off the judges. The wheel has indeed turned full circle, adversely, for Nawaz.
59-year-old Shaheed Khaqan Abbasi, till recently the minister of petroleum & natural resources has been elected interim prime minister (227 votes), easily defeating opposition candidates, PPP’s Naveed Qamar (47 votes) and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI)’s Sheikh Rashid Ahmed (33 votes). Member of the National Assembly(MNA) from NA-50 Rawalpindi with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the US, he is the son of late Khaqan Abbasi – who was a minister in Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Muhammad Khan Junejo’s cabinet – who died in the April 1988 Ojhri ammunition dump explosion when a missile destroyed his house. Abbasi’s candidature as interim prime minister may have been conditioned by the need to paper over rifts within the ruling party, between the Khwaja Asif (Defence Minister) and Chaudhry Nisar Ali (Interior Minister) factions. Abbasi himself faces allegations of corruption in the past. These could relate to his stint as PIA Chairman (1997-1999), for ownership of a private airline, Air Blue since 2007 and for a Liquid Natural Gas deal concluded with Qatar after he became minister of petroleum & natural resources.
Meanwhile, Shahbaz Sharif, currently the chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province will contest elections to the National Assembly from Nawaz’s Lahore constituency before taking on the premiership. 65-year-old Shahbaz Sharif is also three times chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province, with 11 years of experience. He has long nursed ambitions to succeed his brother. In Punjab, he built up a good reputation as an efficient administrator, credited by bureaucrats as having a longer attention span and a more rigorous working style than his elder sibling. In the past, he, along with Chaudhry Nisar Ali, worked as mediator with the Army leadership whenever contentious issues came up in the fraught civil-military relationship.
However, there have been questions about his health – reportedly of a spinal cord cancer infection detected early, and also a rather colorful personal life. After his first wife, Nusrat died in 1993, he had two other involvements and then married Tehmina Durrani (of `My Feudal Lord’ & Mustafa Khar `fame’) in 2003. Seniors in the Sharif clan were not too happy or supportive of these alliances. However, in male dominated Punjabi ethos, Shahbaz may have outlived these reservations.
In the past, Shahbaz in his stint as chief minister of Punjab kept Islamic terror groups at bay by tactically sewing up alliances with groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Maulana Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed, which have sizable pockets of influence in Multan and Bahawalpur. After the Peshawar Army School (December 2014) and Attock (August 2015) attacks, the latter killing his interior minister and former ISI Colonel Shuja Khanzada, he may have discreetly distanced himself from their open patronage.
In any case, his past business dealings and suspected hardline role in the 2014 crackdown against Tahirul Qadri’s demonstrators in Lahore may keep him in the firing line of those who may wish to destabilise his ensuing prime minister-ship.
There is also the question of who will control Punjab. The name of Excise Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman is doing the rounds but others like Law Minister Rana Sanaullah or Rana Muhammad Iqbal Khan could be in the fray. Shahbaz Sharif himself may eventually prefer to have his son Hamza succeed him but this may be difficult in the present political ambience where the judiciary is perceived to be up in arms against the Sharifs. Also, if some reports are to be believed, Nawaz may not be too keen about the Punjab mantle going to Hamza just yet. Factional splits within PML (N) may intensify in days to come. Already, former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali has declined to join the Khaqan Abbasi Cabinet.
The Supreme Court verdict, though controversial, enjoys some popularity among sections of Pakistan’s middle class. Though there is an electoral disqualification related case pending against him in the Supreme Court, much of the credit for doggedly pursuing the alleged corruption of the Sharif family in courts and keeping the issue in public limelight goes to Imran Khan. He may benefit politically in the days to come. His real test in the ensuing parliamentary elections would be to see how much dent he can make in rural Punjab, where the PML (N) still has solid pockets of support. Imran will demand cleansing of Election Commission appointments before these elections. These changes may get the nod from the military and judiciary. Ayesha Gulalai Wazir, a prominent female MNA from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, quit PTI alleging ill-treatment of women. This could be a setback.
Much is being made about how the Supreme Court verdict will strike at the roots of endemic corruption in Pakistan’s politics. A well-known political analyst who fell out with Nawaz Sharif and is now rooting for Imran Khan, held that this kind of a cleansing has never happened before. Accountability was abused by generals and politicians alike in the past but no real accountability ever occurred. Some went about this business openly, while others operated with greater stealth and cunning.
The Panama case and resulting probes have apparently `uncovered the most cunning’. Given the prevailing south Asian political ethos of tolerance for such deeds, this would seem to be a somewhat naïve and premature premise.
Suffice to say, though, that Pakistan is headed for a period of continuing domestic political turmoil. For India, despite claims of `worst-case’ scare-mongers, this instability is unlikely to presage any difference in policies or the fraught relationship, in general. No newly elected civilian politician is likely to challenge the Army’s hold on security, neighborhood or Pakistan’s nuclear policies in the near future. Neither would the Army be inclined to encourage any diversionary distractions to ratchet up tensions at present. The behavior of non-state actors would be less predictable though, and India would need to keep its heightened vigil intact.
* Rana Banerji
Member, Governing Council, IPCS, & former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India