Nawaz Sharif's homecoming: Defiant ex-PM is not just an irritating pop-up, he is the ultimate comeback man

The bubble and churn of Pakistani politics is rising by the hour. All the usual faces have jumped into the milieu in a season of electoral marketing and deal making. At the centre of all this activity is the homecoming of Nawaz Sharif, who chose to take the historic Grand Trunk Road to Lahore, addressing supporters at Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Gujarat, Gujranwala, and other stopovers on the way. Hoarse voiced and punching the air in defiance against his disqualification by the Supreme Court, he is clearly far from giving up the game.

Analysing the few alternatives before him, it is clear that Sharif is following a logical path. At one point, immediately following his disqualification, his closest advisors had reportedly told him to 'go quietly' and not challenge the court. This would have meant a closing of the Sharif saga for a good long while, and a handing over of power to his brother Shahbaz Sharif and eventually, his siblings.

If he had heeded that advice, he would have quietly reached Raiwind and awaited a decision on corruption cases against himself and his family by the National Accountability Courts, functioning under the direct eye of the Supreme Court. Sharif had few choices but to go back on the road and roar defiance.

File image of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

File image of former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

A review of his road show will indicate that he managed to draw out large crowds, a testimony not so much to his popularity as the efficiency of the party machinery. It did fail in Rawalpindi and Islamabad – probably because there is less enthusiasm in these cities to take on the security establishment –  but it seems to have gathered steam as it approached Lahore.

Accompanying him were younger party leaders like Pervaiz Rashid, the former information minister, who had to be sacrificed at the altar of the security establishment in the 'Dawn leaks' episode; Khwaja Asif, the present foreign minister; and Marvi Memon, among others. The absence of old stalwarts like Chaudhry Nisar received the obvious comments, particularly since Nisar is also missing a cabinet post for the first time in a PML(N) government.

Other old time loyalists like Tariq Fatemi, who comes from a distinguished Sufi family, and was a career diplomat rather than a politico, are also missing from the cabinet. Sharif's pronouncements at rallies were rather puzzling. Apart from the frontal attack on the Judiciary and the less obvious hints at the involvement of the deep state, he also seemed to be calling for a revolution – begging the question as to whom the revolution is against, given that it is his party that is at the Centre.

Which brings us to a second choice that he could have made – a call for snap elections. With a majority in both Houses, he could have carried this through. However, caution appears to have triumphed, indicating that Sharif firstly is not quite sure whether the "victim" card will work. After all, the disqualification soap opera being played out on Pakistan media did raise some uncomfortable questions.

Second, the fact remains that he still cannot stand for elections until the Constitution is amended to dispose off the troubling Constitutional Articles 62 and 63, which are the key clauses that demand that a member of Parliament not only be honest ("ameen") but also not have been indicted in a court for 'moral turpitude', or defaulted on loans. Third, the National Accountability Courts are at work under the Supreme Court's direction, and Sharif has to raise the stakes before they are able to find enough evidence to indict him on charges of corruption.

A choice related to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) itself. The NAB is furthering its own investigations into the corruption cases against Sharif and his family, under the legal eye of Justice Ijazul Ahsan, who was part of the original five member bench who brought out the Panama Gate verdict. He was also one of the members who had refused to summarily dismiss Sharif in the first court decision in April.

The NAB will use the report of the Joint Investigation Committee only as a basis for its own investigations, as per the rules governing its Ordnance. Likewise, it is unlikely that members of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) will appear in the court as prosecution witnesses, barring perhaps its head. Meanwhile, the JIT appears to be continuing its own work in terms of foreign liaison, which was the subject of the tenth volume of its report, and the only one which has not been made public.

Clearly, it is looking for more proof of charges than it has been able to get so far. Arising from this, a third choice for the embattled former prime minister is to change the charter of the NAB to allow greater "flexibility" to politicians. A first attempt has already been made in the Sindh Assembly, where the National Accountability Ordnance 1999 Repeal Act has been introduced – which will put much of the power back at the state level, thus easing out central agencies.

This has already been challenged in courts by the ever vigilant Imran Khan. He should hardly be making a fuss about this. Earlier, his government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had amended the Ehtesab Act of 2015, which was mandated to uncover cases of corruption at the provincial level. The new Ordinance severely restricts the Commission's powers, leading to the resignation of its head Lt General (retd) Mohammed Hamid Khan, in protest. Imran, it seems, is as much of a politician as the others when it comes to protecting his own turf.

Meanwhile, the hostility of the deep state is said to be more evident, as several cable operators have shut all news channels, including the state-run TV and broadcast the road show on four channels. Separately, news reports indicate that a 17-year-old case may be resuscitated against Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of Sharif, who has filed her nomination papers for the NA-120 Constituency, which he had bagged by a huge majority in the elections.

Kulsoom has stood strongly beside her husband on more than one occasion, and the case against her is of abusing the Army during a rally in support of her husband – who was imprisoned during the period of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. Things are likely to get hotter in Lahore, as Imran readies his own candidate for the by-poll.

Meanwhile, Sharif is still the master of the game. The federal cabinet has expanded to twice the size earlier, stuffed as it is with Sharif’s nominees, including Amir Muqam and Sartaz Aziz, who were recently appointed as Advisors. The new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, while from a powerful family, is still clearly a stop-gap solution, and brother Shahbaz and his family remain in Punjab. For the military, Sharif is more than just an irritating pop-up. He's the ultimate comeback guy, with a reputation for bouncing back when least expected.

The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2017 06:20 AM

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