The events of Friday night, resulting in the arrest of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, mark the final drop-scene in the politico-judicial drama that has captured our national attention over the past two years, ever since ICIJ’s release of the Panama Papers. This saga – spanning the disqualification and subsequent conviction of Sharif family members – could not have been imagined (even by the most astute political pundits) some twenty-four months ago.
Who could have predicted, in the summer of 2016 that a man as powerful and wealthy as Nawaz Sharif would see such swift fall from grace; that all of his political capital, bureaucratic entrenchments, and judicial alignments, would remain ineffective during the hour of need? That the billions stashed away in wealth (in Pakistan and abroad) would not buy him a safe passage; that international friends would stop returning his calls; that domestic political allies (such as Fazal-ur-Rehman and Achakzai) will not come to his rescue; that the best assembled legal team in the history of Pakistan (from Khawaja Haris, to Makhdoom Ali Khan, Salman Akram Raja, Shahid Hamid, Akram Sheikh and Ashtar Ausaf Ali) will not be able to device a legal strategy that saves him from incarceration; and that seasonal political hawks (including Daniyal Aziz, Talal Chaudhary, Mohsin Ranjha, and the lot) will turn out to be nothing but hot air balloons, ineffective in the face of the storm.
No matter what side of the political divide one belongs to (or sympathizes with), Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz’s incarceration has to serve as a humbling experience. It has to make one believe in the immutable truth that men, muscle and money cannot control the arc of destiny. That the human history is a chronology of decimated pride. And that political ploys and self-aggrandizing strategies are powerless before the hand of fate – of divinity, more appropriately.
Turning more to the on-going events, the manner in which Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz were arrested raises important questions in our political landscape: Is Nawaz Sharif’s arrest another link in the chain of civil-military imbalance? Or should it be seen as merely the arrest of a convict? Can we even convict criminal elements in our polity, without crying foul about civil-military imbalance? Or, should all political leadership be given immunity from crime, till such time that we first arrest Musharraf and other military interventionists?
From a political perspective, it must be asked: where was that big power-show that PML(N) was expected to display in Lahore? What happened to the ticker-parade of Maryam-loyalists that had so unabashedly graced PID press conferences, a few months ago? Where were all the allies such Fazl-ur-Rehman and Achakzai? Have they even issued as much as a statement in support of Nawaz Sharif? And what happened to Shehbaz Sharif? Was his lukewarm effort a signal that he is prepared to move on from Nawaz? Even if PML(N) leaders could genuinely not come out of their homes or reach the airport (unlikely as it seems), why could PML(N) loyalists not accompany Nawaz Sharif in the plane? Why was he left to travel with Irfan Siddiqui alone (who does not command a single legion of PML(N) supporters)? If the journalists such as Dr. Shahid Masood and Sami Ibrahim could get a seat on that plane, where were the PML(N) big-wigs?
Let us start with the civil-military imbalance issue. There is no cavil with the fact that Pakistan’s history is fraught with deep-rooted imbalance between civilian political forces and the military junta. There can also be no argument against the proposition that military dictators (e.g. Pervez Musharraf) must be tried for their crimes, and punished. And that military should not be an active participant in domestic polity. But does that mean that we can never prosecute politicians in our country, till we first try all military interventionists? Is that an argument for criminal immunity to all politicians? And in Nawaz Sharif’s case, was he tried by a military court? Was he denied an opportunity to defend himself before the honourable Supreme Court, or the JIT, or the Accountability Court? And if the august Court disqualified him, and the trial court convicted him, must we assume that it would have to be at the behest of the military establishment? Is there no room for the contention that the judges of the honourable Court were honestly of the opinion that Nawaz Sharif be disqualified or convicted? Is a Qamar Zaman Chaudhary NAB acceptable to us (because it believes in supremacy of corrupt politicians), whereas Justice (R) Javed Iqbal NAB a stooge of the military? Are we really arguing for the idea that Nawaz Sharif’s conviction is based on some sordid military grudge alone… because otherwise his financial dealing and off-shore wealth was entirely lawful?
While striving for increased balance between civil and military establishment, we must have the humility to accept that our political junta includes prosecutable elements, which must be brought within the ambit of our laws. It will be foolish to argue for a democracy where the Army Chief remains at bay, while the Prime Minister loots the entire National Exchequer with impunity.
More to the political front: Dr. Askari’s interim government in Punjab has done us all a great disservice, by imposing fetters on PML(N) loyalists who had gathered to protest in favour of their leader. This is exactly the sort of political high-handedness for which Dr. Askari and others had criticized PML(N) government during PTI dharnas and Tahir-ul-Qadri’s long marches. If Dr. Askari believed such actions were wrong then, how could he re-enact them under his own government?
But that is only part of the reason why Dr. Askari should not have imposed fetters against PML(N)’s protest. More importantly, the interim government should have allowed PML(N) leadership to expose themselves. As is now apparent (in hindsight), most of the PML(N) leadership were not serious about gathering at the airport and taking on the security apparatus. They were more content in crying foul, and blaming lack of public support on the crackdown and containers. This was a time to call their bluff. And Dr. Askari missed out on the opportunity.
In Adiyala, Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz should take some time to reassess their political strategy. Ruminating on the events of the past on year, they should realize that Nawaz Sharif is not Tayyip Erdoğan; that there are no people willing to lay down in front of tanks for him. No public outcry that could overwhelm the foundations of our State. That his own brother Shehbaz Sharif, who is now the leader of PML(N), did little more than a short press-talk to mark his protest yesterday. This realization – and the humility that accompanies it – might help Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz come up with a political strategy that is consummate with the reality on ground. And maybe, through such soul-searching, they can find some way to remain relevant in our political landscape.
n The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional
Law from Harvard Law School.