At one level, former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s journey from Islamabad to Lahore was a preparation for the by-election to the seat he had been forced out of, NA-120, but it was also a spot-check on the emotive issue of corruption on which he had been ousted.

It is now a truism that the GT Road runs through the heartland of his votebank, but the journey also served to highlight the fact that his heartland runs through the main recruiting areas of the armed forces. It was worth remarking that the Prime Minister left behind in Islamabad, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, does not just belong to Rawalpindi, but also to a military family. Not only did his father retire as an air commodore, but a close relative was a naval officer who died in an accident on board a warship some decades ago, and his father-in-law had retired after heading the ISI.

Military connections need not serve Prime Ministers well. Mir Zafarullah Jamali had not one, but two, sons in the Army, but still ended up forced out of office. Mian Nawaz himself has a son-in-law from the Army. Mian Nawaz hinted repeatedly at military interference in politics during his journey back home, but did not mention the fact that he had been brought to office in the Punjab by then Governor Lt Gen Ghulam Jillani Khan, and indeed he had made him the Punjab Chief Minister when the Zia Martial Law restored civilian rule. Mian Nawaz also did not mention how he was considered the main opponent to Muhammmad Khan Junejo in 1986, which manifested itself in the ‘get-Nawaz’ operation of 1986, when two Punjab cabinet ministers resigned.

Mian Nawaz is not the first politician to be produced by the military. The first was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Though he was introduced into politics by Governor General Iskander Mirza, he was taken up by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, when he took over, whose Foreign Minister he became. Similarly, it should not be forgotten that Mian Nawaz had joined the Tehrik Istiqlal before being taken up by Governor Jillani. In fact, he had taken a Tehrik ticket for the October 1979 elections, which were cancelled by Ziaul Haq.

Mian Nawaz was ready in 1988 to head an IJI-led coalition at the Centre, but the numbers simply didn’t add up, and the PPP formed the government at the Centre. Mian Nawaz remained in Punjab as CM. Here he had a thin majority, and could only form a government by winning over independents. He became President of the IJI, and it was at the head of an IJI majority in 1990 that he became Prime Minister the first time.

He lost office when President Ishaq Khan exercised his powers under Article 58 (2b), but was restored by the Supreme Court. However, the Punjab’s Wyne government had tumbled, and Mian Nawaz had to dissolve to pave way for elections, at the price of Ishaq’s resignation. It is indeed accepted that that dissolution had been because of the military using Article 58 (2b) as a safety valve, it showed that the military could not live with its own creation, and also that that creation had become almost indestructible.

The PML(N) was formed at this time, and the ‘tiger’ symbol adopted at this point. After the elections, Mian Nawaz went into the Opposition for the first time since 1981. However, he made another comeback in 1996. The elections were held after President Farooq Leghari exercised his dissolution power.

The dissolution power was considered a useful safety valve, which averted martial law, but which, through the President, allowed the military to dismiss the Prime Minister and have fresh elections. The underlying assumption was that civilian PMs were inherently unreliable. However, it was not enough. When the dissolution power was removed by Parliament, there was martial law in 1999.

Mian Nawaz alone is not the problem. Previous PMs have had problems with the Army chief. The first PM to have been overthrown directly by the military, Feroze Khan Noon, had been Defence Minister before, and thus exposed to the military. Mian Nawaz is also the first PM to come back to office after having been overthrown by a military coup. In that, he is alone, and the high treason trial of the coupmaker, Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, even though it was not taken to its logical conclusion, seems to provide a deterrent against future coups. However, there was still a need to get rid of the PM, which was done through smearing Mian Nawaz on the Panamagate issue, using a new military protégé, Imran Khan, who had emerged during the Musharraf era.

The military seems warier this time around, as it has had two unfortunate experiences, of grooming two leaders who have struck out on their own. Bhutto proved particularly unfortunate, because his influence has extended to the third generation, in the form of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. However, Mian Nawaz’s children are to be prevented, by being disqualified.

While Bhutto represented the old landowning class, both Mian Nawaz and the military represented more ‘modern’ classes, which had been created by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. The old class was condemned by the new as effete and – significantly– corrupt. Mian Nawaz’s trip showed that his supporters, or at least a significant portion thereof, did not care that he had been found insufficiently sadiq or amin to be an MNA, let alone PM. Whether he would win or lose the next election. His ability to contest it remained. Yet while he had not sunk beneath the charges, he had not been able to repel them.

The charges originally made by the colonialists, that the feckless natives were corrupt, remained. This corruption and fecklessness meant that a ‘clean’ and suitably modern ruler could not just take over, but had a duty to do so. In other words, the military. Politicians today would have to be brain-damaged to be corrupt in the ordinary sense. However, they need to be corrupt to maintain their position, mostly to fight elections. However, this applies in the mother-country democracies. The PTI, by holding them up as an example, is not just buying into that narrative, but paving the way for being beaten over the head with the same stick, just as PTI chief Imran Khan was probably advised when setting up an offshore company to buy a flat that ‘that is how it is done’ in advanced countries.

Corruption has always been a justification for military takeovers. EBDO was used by the Ayub Martial Law to get rid of politicians en masse. Zia used the slogan ‘Pehle Ehtesab Phir Intekhab’ to justify breaking the ‘polls in 90 days’ pledge he took over with. Musharraf founded NAB, and apart from hijacking, Mian Nawaz was accused of corruption. In each of the four presidential dismissals of the government between 1988 and 1996, corruption was alleged.

Mian Nawaz’s reception is because the adoption of modern democracy has meant the division of the electorate into two camps, and one is now led by Mian Nawaz. While the camp led by the PPP is now being replaced by the PTI, that led by the PML(N) has no replacement in sight, General Musharraf’s Awami Muslim League having crashed before it could take off. As all sides need funny money (the proceeds of corruption) to fight elections, corruption cannot be abolished. But it will always be a convenient stick to beat any elected government over the head with.