Nawaz Sharif returns to Pakistan: Flying back to court arrest is former PM's last throw of dice; but don't count him out just yet

Nawaz Sharif's decision to return to Pakistan is the last throw of a desperate dice by a condemned man. The former Pakistan prime minister is under no illusion that the gamble that he has taken in flying back home along with his daughter to court immediate arrest and a double-digit prison term could backfire. Yet, this is a chance that he had to take because the alternative was a certain political death.

Nawaz could have easily stayed back in London to attend to his cancer-stricken wife and applied for asylum. In fact, that was the preferred outcome of the military-judicial establishment that had thrown him out of the prime minister's chair on a vague constitutional pretext and had taken a series of steps to terminate his political career.

Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif with daughter Maryam at Abu Dhabi international airport. Twitter@MaryamNSharif

Former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif with daughter Maryam at Abu Dhabi international airport. Twitter@MaryamNSharif

The military-judicial establishment — a purported alliance between the country's all-powerful military and a politicised judiciary that constricts further the already endangered space for democracy in Pakistan — was alarmed that despite all its machinations, Nawaz was turning his ouster and the corruption probe against him into a political weapon and gaining in strength ahead of elections.

London-based Economist newspaper in an article published on 21 June pointed out how "the only thing standing in the way of the army’s plan (to put a puppet civilian government in Islamabad) is voters’ apparent sympathy for Sharif. His rallies draw large crowds. Polling by Gallup puts the PML-N 13 points ahead of the PTI nationally, and 20 points up in Punjab." The newspaper goes on to quote a resident from Rawalpindi, where the army headquarters are located, as saying: “We know the establishment might attempt to manipulate the elections… but we will vote for him (Nawaz) again."

It became important for the army to follow up Nawaz's ouster and ban with an extended prison sentence, which the court duly obliged. Independent analysts have pointed out that Nawaz was convicted and sentenced not to due to the force of the evidence against him but because he had the temerity to question the army's stranglehold over the civilian leadership and Rawalpindi's primacy over Pakistan's security and foreign policy.

ORF fellow Sushant Sareen wrote in Daily O: "The court proceedings (against Nawaz) were a mere formality being observed to maintain the charade of due process and the fiction of a fair trial." Some have punched holes in the judicial process that led to Nawaz being slapped with a 10-year sentence.

The "unseen forces" — as Nawaz calls them — had calculated that the former prime minister, who had been on a seven-year exile to Saudi Arabia before, will cool his heels in the comforts of his contentious London property instead of returning home to remain locked in a 10x10 cell. Nawaz plans to appeal, but no one seriously believes that his sentence will be overturned or stayed.

The deep state perhaps erred in calculating that Nawaz will walk quietly into the London sunset. In their effort to finish his political career and cripple the PML-N (opinion polls published in July show that Nawaz's party is still ahead in the important Punjab province despite all odds), it went a step too far and left Nawaz with no other option but to fight back.

There were two clear choices before the former prime minister. He and his daughter could have accepted the reality of a soft coup and taken the tacit encouragement of an exile in a foreign land. As mentioned above, it would have meant certain political death for him and his immediate family.

It is worth remembering that though the "life ban from politics" disqualified Nawaz from holding on to any post in public office, he had been elected PML-N's "leader for life" which meant that he continued to wield authority in his own party which, as it has been shown, was opening up a formidable gap with rivals ahead of elections. If the PML-N (with Nawaz at its helm) had received the popular mandate, it would have been difficult for the Pakistani deep state to keep Nawaz away from becoming the prime minister a fourth time. The 10-year prison sentence, therefore, was expected to act as a deterrent and discourage Nawaz and his daughter from harbouring any thoughts of return.

Contrary to the military's expectations, however, Nawaz and his daughter have opted for the second option. This is a path fraught with risks, uncertainties and threats but realistically, this is also the only option left for a maverick politician who knows that his absence from Pakistan will eventually erode his authority in the party and end his relevance. His return does not diminish these possibilities but if he can turn the persecution against him into a convincing political narrative and trigger a sympathy wave before the elections, then the possibility of his eventual return to relevance remains bright.

Nawaz's entire game, therefore, is incumbent on triggering a 'sympathy wave' and influencing the course of elections where Imran Khan's PTI, buoyed by a relatively clean image and the army's overt and covert support, seems to have got a head start. In this battle, while his rivals have all the aces, Nawaz has only one weapon — social media. His daughter, the ostensible heir-apparent and a co-accused, has posted a series of emotional tweets, showing how difficult it has been for her to leave her kids and an ailing mother behind and accompany her dad to face prosecution at home.

She also posted a video message from Nawaz recorded on board an aircraft. The former PM says he has made the "supreme sacrifice" in returning to Pakistan to court arrest and has done everything under his control to honour the commitment that he had made to Pakistani people, urging them to repay the trust.

“Please support me and walk with me at every step. We must change the country’s future. This opportunity will not come again… I have to tell the Pakistani nation that I am doing this for them. I am giving this sacrifice for your coming generations...for Pakistan’s future,” said Nawaz.

Pakistan's security establishment is aware that Nawaz's 'martyrdom card' may strike a chord with the electorate and alter the electoral equations. It has gone out of its way to ensure that Nawaz fails to generate any political capital out of his ordeal. The ousted premier and his daughter will be whisked away in a chopper to their prisons the moment they land. There shall be no media coverage of the operation.

Pakistan's caretaker government has seen to it that the deep state's orders are followed in letter and spirit. PML-N workers, who were planning to greet their leader at the airport and taking out rallies, have been arrested by the thousands. The internet is suspended and the media has been gagged. Pakistan's media regulatory authority has asked TV channels to telecast only edited footage, ostensibly to stop them from telecasting 'malicious and obscene content'. An unwritten martial law is in place.

The assault on the media has been severe. Its genesis lies in the October 2016 Dawn leaks incident highlighting the confrontation between the Nawaz Sharif government and the army. It was interpreted by the deep state as a challenge to its hegemony over real levers of power. Since the media was at the centre of the controversy, it was deemed to be as much of a threat as Nawaz, who was trying to challenge the military's primacy in civil administration.

Since then, prominent newspapers have seen their distribution networks being targeted, TV channels that refuse to toe the army's line have been yanked off cable networks, journalists have been threatened, kidnapped, detained, assaulted while others have been forced into self-censorship.

So coercive and total has been the crackdown that journalists have called it a "dirty war on press freedom". In his article for US-based Washington Post newspaper, Hameed Haroon, chief executive of the Dawn Media Group and president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society, writes, "We are now witnessing a new form of quasi-military censorship that is astonishingly aggressive in using both threats and coercion. The inevitable result of this program of intimidation is a culture of widespread self-censorship. Zaffar Abbas, the editor of Dawn — one of the leading independent newspapers currently being targeted — has described these self-imposed restrictions as “far more suffocating than martial law."

Herein lies a silver lining for Nawaz. The paranoia of the unelected establishment betrays an insecurity that it may not have popular support in holding on to the power structure. If Nawaz's very arrival can cause the military to quake in their boots, an unlikely win may further upset calculations. We may not have heard the last of Nawaz's story yet.

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Updated Date: Jul 14, 2018 13:45:58 IST

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