It seems Pakistan’s establishment suffers from a ten-year itch to change the governmental system in the country. If one looks at Pakistan’s 70-year history, one is struck by the amazing regularity with which the governments in Pakistan have been overthrown or radically changed at ten-year intervals. Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from power is the latest symptom of this deep malady from which our body politic suffers. It is an indication of restlessness and lack of persistence among our people and leaders, desire for instantaneous results and miraculous solutions of difficult issues which demand long-term application, and the stranglehold over power that the establishment or the deep state has acquired with the passage of time. Unless we analyse the latest developments in the country accurately and draw the right lessons from our past experience, the danger is that the country will continue to stumble from one crisis to the other with little prospect of moving in the right direction in a sustained manner.
Pakistan came into being through a democratic process involving the exercise of the right to vote of its people after a hard struggle under the leadership of the Quaid-e-Azam and the Muslim League. Mindful of the flawed thinking of and dangerous tendencies among senior army officers, the Quaid-e-Azam strongly advised them in an address at Quetta to remain conscious of the implications of their oath of honour and refrain from involvement in political affairs. Unfortunately, the Quaid’s advice was not heeded. Within a period of about ten years after the Quaid-e-Azam’s death, Ayub Khan imposed martial law in the country which was poised to hold general elections under the country’s first constitution. The martial law of 1958 not only derailed the fragile democratic system in the country but also set a bad precedent for later military adventurers to play with the destiny of the nation, often with disastrous results. The country had to suffer from a military defeat and its dismemberment at the hands of India in December, 1971 because of the incompetence of its military rulers.
Even the tragedy of 1971 did not deter Zia-ul-Haq from overthrowing an elected government and imposing martial law in the country in 1977. The nation continues to suffer from the culture of religious extremism promoted by him and the distortions introduced by him in the Constitution. The dark era of his rule came to an end in 1988. It is interesting that the investigation into the air crash that killed him was never allowed to be taken to its logical conclusion by the powers that be. One wonders why. The subsequent period of elected governments, in which the army’s top brass controlled the strings of power from behind the scene, came to an end in 1999 when Perez Musharraf, another military usurper, overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif. It is a tragedy of monumental proportions that almost every time the overthrow of the democratic order by the military was validated by the country’s superior judiciary to its eternal discredit.
Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial rule came to an end in 2008 as a result of the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the superior judiciary and a virtual revolt by the political parties and the public at large. It is strange but perhaps not entirely surprising that this man who was responsible for the disastrous Kargil operation, a sell-out of the Kashmir cause, and Afghan policies which brought the country to the brink of a major national disaster, should be singing praises of the military dictatorship as against a democratic order in the country. It is also intriguing that this usurper was provided protection and then given safe exit from the country by the powers that be even though he was under trial on charges of high treason under Article 6 of the constitution. So much for the commitment to the rule of law, which is an indispensable condition for justice, internal stability, and economic progress in Pakistan, on the part of these powers.
It is against the background of the foregoing events that one needs to analyse the events which led to Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from the office of the Prime Minister. The attempts to discredit and weaken the restored democratic order started immediately after Pervez Musharraf’s ouster from power. These efforts were intensified after Nawaz Sharif’s election as the Prime Minister in 2013. Although Nawaz Sharif gained prominence in politics because of the backing by the top brass of the Pakistan army, his defiance of the military diktat and his determination to pursue internal and external policies which at times were at variance with the military thinking alienated him from the military top brass and created a gulf of mistrust between the two. The dharna by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri launched in 2014 with the covert support of some renegade elements from the deep state on the cooked up charge of rigged elections held a year earlier was the first attempt to weaken the democratic process and dethrone Nawaz Sharif. The attempt failed but not without weakening Nawaz Sharif politically and delaying the launch of CPEC from 2014 to April 2015. The Dawn leaks issue, which erupted in October 2016, was another indicator of the growing mistrust between the military establishment and the Nawaz Sharif government. An overt and covert campaign was also launched by the members of the establishment in favour of a government of technocrats, which was a disguised form of a military government, in Pakistan in place of the current democratic order.
The disclosure through the Panama leaks in April 2016 of off-shore companies and properties owned by the Sharif family in London provided another opportunity to Nawaz Sharif’s detractors to bleed him politically and oust him from power. The effort was spearheaded by a sustained propaganda campaign launched by PTI with the support of many of the elements who were involved in extending support to the dharna of 2014. It ultimately succeeded on 28 July when a five-member Supreme Court bench delivered a unanimous but controversial judgment disqualifying Nawaz Sharif from the membership of the National Assembly, thereby, ousting him from the office of the Prime Minister. While the judgment has been welcomed by PTI, JI, and Nawaz Sharif’s detractors within the establishment, it has attracted criticism not only from Nawaz Sharif and PML(N) but also from many leading members of the legal community in Pakistan who consider it to be deeply flawed from the legal point of view. These critics have called for a review of the judgment by the full Supreme Court bench to remove its legal flaws and lay down guidelines on several constitutional issues raised by it relating to the interpretation of articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution.
Nawaz Sharif’s successful march on the GT road from Islamabad to Lahore has clearly shown that he still remains quite popular among the people. His ability to bring about a smooth change of command at the Centre through the election of a Prime Minister of his choice and his tight control on PML(N) have established that he remains relevant to Pakistan’s future politics despite the efforts to end his political career. The current situation in the country calls for concerted efforts by the various political parties and other stakeholders to reform the current constitutional dispensation so that ambiguities regarding articles 62 and 63 are removed, all state institutions operate through mutual consultations within their constitutional limits, the principle of civilian supremacy is reinforced, across the board accountability is ensured, and the various paths to a non-democratic political dispensation in the country are blocked.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.