Why is Nawaz Sharif’s conviction by an accountability court so troubling? Why is it that people with impeccable democratic credentials and a history of fighting for the rule of law find it worrying that the former Prime Minister and current head of the PML-N has been sentenced to ten years in prison for his failure to account for the source of the funds that allowed his family to acquire properties in London? Why is it that people who might otherwise be expected to have little sympathy for Nawaz Sharif’s politics, both because of his ideological inclinations and his role in subverting democracy in the 1980s and 1990s at the behest of the establishment, now find themselves defending him from the allegations being levelled against him?

In principle, the entire process that saw Nawaz Sharif being tried and convicted should have been relatively easy to support. It should be clear that no one is above the law, and that those who have misused their power and violated the trust placed in them as holders of public office should be held accountable for their misdeeds. The fact that Nawaz Sharif is a three-time Prime Minister should not be seen as a reason for not investigating the accusations of corruption that have been made against him, nor should it be taken as grounds for suggesting he is beyond punishment. Indeed, many might argue that being able to successfully hold the country’s most powerful elected representative accountable represents a maturation of Pakistan’s democratic institutions.

The problem, of course, is that it is not possible to say, with any degree of confidence, that the entire process and sequence of events leading to Nawaz Sharif’s ouster and subsequent conviction was motivated by a desire for accountability and the strengthening of the democratic system. Instead, it has come across as a witch-hunt, a targeted operation in which the single-minded goal has been to undermine Sharif and his party for reasons that can only be interpreted as being contrary to the broader entrenchment of democracy in Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif may or may not be corrupt, but the manner in which his guilt has been determined makes it clear that punishing him for his alleged transgressions has always been secondary to cutting him down to size on the eve of the 2018 general elections.

The most damning evidence for this argument comes from the unrelenting manner in which the case against Nawaz Sharif was pursued. For over a year, there has been constant activity on this front, with the courts and state machinery working non-stop to first disqualify Nawaz Sharif and then convict him. Independently of the merits of the case against Sharif, the most interesting revelation to come out of this entire saga is that when needed, the Supreme Court, NAB, and other associated institutions can act with ruthless efficiency and alacrity. This is puzzling precisely because this is not what usually happens. While the case against Nawaz Sharif was brought to a relatively swift conclusion, there are many more high profile cases, involving politicians from other parties, that have never really been taken seriously by NAB or the courts. The same can be said for cases against the bureaucracy and the military. Indeed, it is impossible to not compare the way in which Nawaz Sharif was continuously hounded by NAB and the Supreme Court with the approach taken to General Musharraf (and other dictators) whose crimes do not appear to merit the same level of seriousness as Sharif’s alleged financial misconduct.

Sharif’s opponents are quick to argue that whataboutery of this kind, saying that no one can be held accountable until everyone is, is a poor argument to make in the former Prime Minister’s defence since it hardly absolves him of his guilt, suggesting instead that investigation and judgment be deferred until such time that the institutions tasked with discharging these functions are able to do so in a more comprehensive, wide-ranging, and perhaps even unrealistic manner. This makes sense, except that in Pakistan’s context, selective accountability is hardly new and, more importantly, has historically tended to weaken, rather than strengthen, systems of democratic rule. The trial and execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the numerous charges of corruption made against Benazir Bhutto and, indeed, Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s, all served to destabilize democratic governments and restore a status quo in which powerful authoritarian forces were able to reassert their control and continue their manipulation of the country’s politics.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from Pakistan’s chequered history, it is that ‘accountability’ has usually been used as a means through which to target and eliminate ‘troublesome’ politicians. These individuals are not necessarily the most corrupt or criminal elements of the political class, but instead are simply those whose presence represents a threat to the status quo, either In terms of the radical ideas they hold or, more accurately, their potential ability to consolidate democracy and undo the damage done by decades of authoritarianism. It is precisely to prevent the possibility of accountability across the board, and the necessary reconfiguration of power in society such an exercise would entail, that provides the impulse to act so decisively against leaders and parties that appear to be accumulating the kind of popular support and institutional strength needed to make such an outcome possible.

As the protégé of a military dictator who spent much of his political career undermining his opponents at the behest of the establishment that created him, as someone who articulated and gave space to some of Pakistan’s more reactionary right-wing tendencies, and as an unapologetic defender of an economic order that saw the few prosper at the expense of the many, Nawaz Sharif was always an unlikely and imperfect agent of change. Yet, that is the role thrust upon him by history at this juncture in time, and it remains to be seen if he will be able to play a part in upholding a democratic system he once actively sought to subvert. His example also provides a salutary lesson for those rejoicing in his downfall and seeing within it a path to their own advance up Pakistan’s political ladder; power acquired through problematic means can be stripped away just as easily. All who have an interest in seeing a democratic Pakistan would do well to not miss the wood for the trees, and consider how the ‘successful’ persecution/prosecution of one individual is not replacement for the kind of structural change the system needs.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Nawaz Sharif may or may not be
corrupt, but the manner in which his
guilt has been determined makes it clear that punishing him for his alleged transgressions has always been secondary to cutting him down to size on the eve
of the 2018 general elections.