Panama Papers verdict: Nawaz Sharif ousted, jihadist violence against India may give way to hostile pacifism

It may appear churlish to claim that Nawaz Sharif took a leaf out Narendra Modi's book and wanted to establish the primacy of civilian leadership. It won't be an outrageous claim, however. With Sharif's ouster, India now stares at another limited period of intense, subversive adventurism. This isn't to say that Sharif in his third stint as Pakistan prime minister was working hard to curb terrorism, solve Kashmir problem and turn India into an ally from eternal foe. He wasn't.

But he did try for better trade relations, if only for the narrow motive of letting his own business empire tap India's powerful market. He did try to improve bilateral ties, if only out of an existentialist threat to his political career. Sharif, whom the Pakistan Supreme Court on Friday ousted in a blatant act of judicial activism, understood that only a stronger economy and semblance of peace at the border will give him the political legitimacy needed to stay in power for five years — a feat no other Pakistani prime minister has achieved.
Under him, the economy was showing promising signs. He improved fiscal discipline, reduced poverty, put money in middle class's hands, and the stock market responded with enthusiasm. On 15 May, 2017, index provider MSCI announced that it was reclassifying Pakistan's status from lowly 'frontier' to more prestigious 'emerging market'.

One may assume that these positive changes would have strengthened Sharif's political hold and gave greater legitimacy to the civilian government. Surely the electorate would welcome these developments? They did, and that's the problem. Nawaz's Pakistan Muslim League (N) remain hugely popular in the influential Punjab province and the prime minister had total control over his party. Imran Khan was sniping at his heels but he wasn't a political heavyweight.

Historically, Pakistan's army and the Deep State have felt insecure during even brief interludes of civilian authority. They see Banquo's apparition in a popular prime minister. This arises out of their necessity to keep rent-seeking opportunities intact. For the army and Pakistan's intelligence establishment, animus against India and Afghanistan translate into massive pecuniary and political benefits.

 Panama Papers verdict: Nawaz Sharif ousted, jihadist violence against India may give way to hostile pacifism

File image of Nawaz Sharif. Reuters

Democracy is an idea existent more in its abuse in Pakistan and it is the bulwark of the army that keeps the failing state from collapsing under its own weight. With Islam as the governing principle and macho military generals protecting borders, Pakistan doesn’t need a civilian government. Sharif, who wanted to normalise democracy and solidify grip over power, made two cardinal errors. He responded to Modi's outreaches (swearing-in ceremony, Lahore stopover) and sought to limit the influence wielded by the security-intelligence network.

In particular, he told Pakistan's military and ISI that Pakistan faces "international isolation" if it carries on using jihadist violence as a foreign policy tool. In an extraordinary meeting which took place on 3 October, 2016, the civilian administration delivered two messages to generals: "military-led intelligence agencies are not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups" and "fresh attempts be made to conclude the Pathankot investigation and restart the stalled Mumbai attacks-related trials". Needless to say, Dawn journalist Cyril Almeida's report shook up Pakistan.

It is inconceivable that the 'Dawn Leaks' happened without Sharif's knowledge. He was playing a high-stakes game of poker with the all-powerful army and Friday's Supreme Court verdict is the price he paid for his adventurism.
It is delusory to think that Panama Papers verdict is an open and shut case of probity versus corruption. In Pakistan — as in most of south Asia — corruption is a way of life and it touches all aspects of polity — civilian, judicial, military. The verdict simply proves the axiomatic truth that only members of the civilian government are vulnerable to judicial action. Pakistan's highest court has been repeatedly guilty of dismissing elected governments.

As Harris Khalique writes in New York Times, "The Supreme Court of Pakistan has legally sanctioned every military coup in the country. The few judges who objected to such interventions were made to retire. It has endorsed the removal of elected governments and has sentenced one elected prime minister to death and disqualified another. Every democratically elected government has been removed on charges of corruption and incompetence."

That this was an army-engineered coup fronted by the judiciary became clear when the joint investigative team (JIT) to probe the case against Sharif included members of military-intelligence network. In the latter half of his latest stint as premier, the PML-N chief understood that he was fighting a losing battle. Just as Sharif was once used by the military to ambush Benazir Bhutto in 1990s, Khan was being employed by the Rawalpindi GHQ to cut the premier to size. Khan raised a whirlwind of street-level protest despite little political legitimacy and it is mainly due to his obstinacy that the case against Sharif and his family went to courts.

A desperate Sharif tried to mend fences with the army — lionising Burhan Wani and vowing to "snatch Kashmir away from India" but the powerful army generals could never really trust him. Sharif sacked his aides for 'leaking' news of the meeting to media but the army said it wasn't enough.

With Sharif gone, the space for democracy will further shrink in Pakistan. For India, it may not mean a drastic change in approach but will surely entail a greater application of defensive steps and counterterrorism. Sharif was deeply unpopular in Pakistan among the jihadist network, many of whom were starved of funds. It doesn't surprise that his ouster was wildly cheered. Banned outfit Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Abdul Rehman Makki, brother-in-law of 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed, was quoted by TV channels, as saying that "Sharif was punished for not supporting jihad."

Makki had on an earlier occasion castigated Sharif for playing Holi with Pakistani Indians. He told reporters in Lahore that Sharif was trying to "please the Indian government. The rulers must realise that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations. Their culture and civilisation are different. They cannot live together." Another cleric had said that by playing Holi, a Hindu festival, Sharif has blasphemed against Islam.

Syed Ata Hasnain, strategic thinker and former GOC of Srinagar-based 15 Corps, writes in Swarajyamag that "Punjab based anti-India jihadi groups may receive an impetus due to competing power centres within the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). There is no guarantee that the Sharif family’s hold will remain uninterrupted. The more its power dilutes greater will be the power of elements such as JuD and Jaish e Mohammad (JeM)."

In the medium to short term, India may see a rise in jihadist violence but eventually that will dissipate into the current state of hostile pacifism. This is chiefly because Pakistan is now less of a sovereign nation and more of China's vassal state. The Chinese wouldn't like a surge in terrorist incidents to unsettle and jeopardise their larger goal in Pakistan, of furthering their economic colonialism.

According to Pakistani scholar and economist S Akbar Zaidi, China Pakistan Economic Corridor "is indeed a game changer, but not in the way our ruling classes have projected it to be. It will enslave Pakistan and undermine its sovereignty."

It stands to reason that China wouldn't like its newest colony to go up in flames when it can be used better as a strategic weapon to contain India. The most damaging aspect of the Panama verdict lies in its impact on democracy as a governing principle in Pakistan.

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2017 09:27:17 IST