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Pakistan in flux, Imran in trouble as Nawaz prepares to exit stage left; time for new blood to enter politics

  • That Nawaz Sharif is critically ill was known a month ago, with no less than an army doctor signing on to the fact

  • The problem was that Imran Khan disbelieved it and insisted that Nawaz be examined at the government hospital in Lahore

  • The key word that is floating around in Pakistan these days is stability. And that is not a word one associates with Imran

This is as bizarre as it gets. A former prime minister at death's door in a dank prison, while separate power centres have it out in public and in conference rooms over whether or not he should be allowed out of the country for treatment. It gets worse. Allies of Prime Minister Imran Khan are showing signs of unrest, while Pakistan speculates whether this political play is due to whether or not an army chief  will stay beyond his tenure. Everything revolves around that, especially given the revolving door that is the Prime Minister’s Office in Islamabad.

To cut to the chase.  Everyone can recall the whole media trial that was named ‘Panamagate’,  where the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was accused of amassing riches that would have made an oil sheikh envious, at the expense of the State. Against general practice in such cases, the nine of ten volumes of ‘investigations’ by a joint investigation team — which naturally included the Inter-Services Intelligence — were made public and then hotly discussed on television.

 Pakistan in flux, Imran in trouble as Nawaz prepares to exit stage left; time for new blood to enter politics

File image of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. AP

The details of riches the average Pakistani could never dream of were discussed in drawing rooms and tenements alike. So that in the end, it didn’t seem to matter that the investigators could prove nothing, except that Nawaz had received a paltry salary of 10,000 dirhams for being on the board of a Dubai-based company while in office. And on those flimsy grounds he was flung into jail, even while fines of all kinds worth billions were levied on other counts. And there he fell ill, and badly so.

All of 69, Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif is the only Pakistani politician elected thrice to the top post, twice as chief minister, sentenced to various prison terms, and expelled for a decade from the country. This time, however, it is serious.

That Nawaz is critically ill was known a month ago, with no less than an army doctor signing on to the fact. The problem was that Imran disbelieved it and insisted that Nawaz be examined at the government hospital in Lahore.  A battery of 14 doctors there reported that the former prime minister was indeed in dire straits, and recommended he be shifted abroad.

A rare fit of political acumen seized Imran, and it seemed that Nawaz would be taken off the Exit Control List and allowed to travel. Unfortunately, this sagacity didn’t last 24 hours. At a Cabinet meeting, it was decided that Nawaz would first have to sign an indemnity bond of Rs 700 crore, which is essentially a back of the envelope calculation of what he is accused of having looted.

Agreeing to this would have been political suicide, since it would have been a virtual admission of guilt. the Someone thought they were being smart, and when the offer was scornfully refused by the far smarter Sharifs, the government was left with egg on their collective faces.

The family then approached the Lahore High Court which granted an interim order to allow the former premier ‘one time’ permission to travel, but only after Nawaz and his brother provided signed undertakings that he would return in four weeks, if doctors allowed it.

The case will again be heard in January, when the court will review several law points on the legality on various points of the ECL Ordinance of 1981. Special Assistant to the prime minister Firdous Awan seemed to consider an appeal against the decision, but sense seems to have prevailed.

A dead Nawaz is dynamite for the Imran's PTI, and pure gold for the PML(N). Besides, there is also the little matter of the Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his several thousand cohorts protesting and demanding the resignation of Imran.

As a seriously ill Nawaz prepares to leave, the situation is rapidly deteriorating for Imran as well. The PML(Qaid), headed by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, an important ally of the ruling coalition, seemed to be showing signs of uneasiness, with its leadership choosing to state on an interview that the then ISI chief Shuja Pasha had ‘convinced’ many of his party men to side with the PTI in 2010.

Another coalition partner MQM has also begun to ponder publicly whether it made sense to continue supporting the PTI. A skeptic would say ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’, but then politicians can give rats a run for their money in terms of a keenness to survive. Clearly, somewhere, something is wrong.

Which brings us to the most likely quarters, the army chief, and the question of his extension. General Qamar Bajwa’s tenure ends this month, and it really does seem that November has been an extraordinarily active month politically.

As seasoned expert Najam Sethi wrote, the actual extension order signed in August has yet to be accepted or officially released by the powerful army headquarters. Certainly, the military is far less interested in seeing doom and despair being released on the Sharifs than the vengeful Imran.

At his much vaunted public event in Washington, Pakistan’s prime minister derided the ailing Nawaz's request for an air conditioner, vowing he would provide no such thing. And he didn’t. That's not a pretty thing to see in headlines, especially if Nawaz passes on to the great hereafter. No, the army is probably not happy with Imran. Things are not going well for him and everyone knows it.

As Nawaz gets on a plane, hopefully to return another day, he’s leaving an area of severe turbulence. General Bajwa may or may not be around to preside over his return or the next hearing of his case. Neither may be Imran.

There will, however, be the young Bilawal Bhutto waiting in the wings. One may wish Nawaz a very speedy recovery. This is not a man who has ever gone down without a fight. But it may be,time for a new generation to enter the political mess that is Pakistan.

More importantly, it may be that the army thinks so too. The key word that is floating around in Pakistan these days is ‘stability’. And that is not a word one associates with Imran.

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Updated Date: Nov 18, 2019 21:51:13 IST