Nawaz Sharif and Panama Papers row: In Pakistan, governments are elected, but the military rules

In the month of April, two different verdicts from two different cases were passed in two very different courts in Pakistan. Two different men were on trial accused of two different crimes. One was let off easy for now, while the other was declared as guilty as guilty could be. Safe to say both verdicts were the cause of consternation and confusion.

One of course, was the sham kangaroo court trial of the ‘alleged Indian spy’ Kulbhushan Jadhav who was sentenced to the gallows by a military tribunal court. This, despite lack of concrete evidence in a fabricated case with no legal representation provided.

The other was incumbent Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who experienced temporary respite after the Pakistan Supreme Court declared that the evidence against him wasn’t concrete enough to oust him from office.

The Panama Papers scandal of 2016 has left Sharif and his family in a quagmire. According to the explosive investigation, Sharif’s family have been accused of money laundering and using several offshore companies to buy prime property in London. While Sharif and his aides deny the allegations, the Supreme Court seems to think further investigation is required. The court has asked for the formation of a joint investigation team be formed to further investigate the allegations, and analysing the results of that investigation, a final verdict could be passed.

The joint-investigation team includes members of Pakistan’s military intelligence. In a statement put out by the ISPR (Pakistani intelligence’s public relations wing), the agency said that the army would play its ‘due role’ through its institutions. There is a level of insidiousness about the phrase ‘due role’. Naturally, the Twitterati in Pakistan seemed to be cheering this announcement. The overwhelming view in Pakistan is that the military is the only institution whose underpinnings are rock solid and whose integrity, unlike that of various political parties, cannot be besmirched.

File image of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

File image of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

The army welcomes this view, for it sees itself as the watchdog, the guardian and the sole defender of Pakistan, not just militarily but ideologically.

In its brief 70-year history, Pakistan has seen three coups and four military rulers and has been under military rule for more than half its existence. New Delhi has often felt that the military establishment in Pakistan has been the thorn in the flesh to the much protracted and inconclusive peace dialogue between the two countries. Many in South Block have spoken ad-nauseum of how the military has derailed bilateral relations in the past. Even several non-partisan think tanks and foreign policy analysts say that the Pakistani military’s raison d'etre has been this faux existential threat it perceives against its much larger neighbour to the east.

Former Pakistan ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani best explained the earliest moorings of the Pakistan army in his latest book on Indo-Pak relations. He says the military defines the concept of Pakistani nationalism through an anti-India lens. Haqqani goes on to wax lyrical about history when he says during partition of the Indian sub-continent, Pakistan was carved out gaining 19 percent of British India’s population, 17 percent of the resources but it gained a whopping 33 percent of the army.

Haqqani brilliantly sums this up by saying most countries raise an army proportionate to the size of the threat that they face, but in Pakistan’s case, the size of the army determine how Pakistan would present the threat it faces.

And the military plays up this ‘India insecurity’ card to the point that past stats reveal that 70 percent to 80 percent of the nation’s budget goes towards the three defense forces. This in a developing nation which is in dire need of spending towards public services in education and healthcare.

The Pakistani army would concur, except the hagiography the ISPR would write would speak about the military being the only establishment standing in the way of this pretense impending takeover by India.

Other foreign powers are not oblivious to a quasi-military state identity. It was reported that even after the Bin Laden raid was conducted by US special forces in 2011, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen called the then army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to inform him about the operation. This superseded any direct conversation with the civilian government then led by Asif Ali Zardari and Yousuf Raza Gilani. A former Pakistani colleague once addressed this dichotomy of civilian-military leadership in this manner.

He said “for us, it’s like having two Prime Ministers. You see while Sharif is in Washington talking trade deals, the Chief of Army Staff is in Beijing talking defence ties. The civilian government is responsible for economic  and domestic issues, while all matters pertaining to foreign and defence policies are strictly under the purview of the army. For many in Pakistan, they see this as too good a deal to lose”.

Corruption in the South-Asian region isn’t startling to anyone. And in the sub-continent, if you throw mud hard enough, some of it will surely stick. But in Pakistan, all political parties know they have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head. For if corruption allegations pick up steam and public ennui builds up, the army is looked upon, more accurately called upon through an almost invisible ‘bat signal’ to take over the reigns. In Pakistan, what the military wants, the military gets and if it doesn’t get, it takes. The Kulbhushan Jadhav ‘trial’ (if we can call it that) has been seen as an entirely military led Machiavellian scheme — one that the civilian government and the courts have had little say over.

The lines of distinction between civilian and military and judiciary and executive have often been blurred. Former army chief and president, Pervez Musharraf who himself usurped power in a military coup saw his waning popularity hit a nadir after he dismissed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The same chief justice, few years later would dismiss an elected Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani on charges of not reinstating prior corruption cases against then President Asif Zardari. All this while, then leader of opposition Nawaz Sharif resisted calls to topple the then incumbent Pakistan People’s Party government, fearing that this would invite the military back into politics.

Despite the criticism of the Zardari-led government from 2008 to 2013, it was a watershed moment in Pakistan’s history; for it was the first time an elected party had completed its full term.
The late Benazir Bhutto, whose family suffered the harshest blow-back from the military would have been moved. During both her tenures, she had stated that even though she had the position of

Prime Minister, she had very little power. She claimed military intelligence officials would routinely approach judges and other officials asking them to pass verdicts that would topple the government.

Perhaps author and public intellectual Reza Aslan said it best: In Pakistan, no matter who is in power, the military is effectively in charge. Imaginably, one could argue that bilateral relations in the not so distant future between India and Pakistan could be defined as New Delhi-Rawalpindi relations.


Published Date: Apr 26, 2017 03:24 pm | Updated Date: Apr 26, 2017 03:24 pm


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