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The 'new' face of Nawaz Sharif

Updated 29 Nov, 2016 01:09am
Nawaz Sharif addressing the nation on November 30, 1997 | The Herald archives
Nawaz Sharif addressing the nation on November 30, 1997 | The Herald archives

If he has any desire to understand what is happening to his government, Nawaz Sharif should read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. This novel tells the story of a man created by man, and unwisely made to love himself for his flawless beauty. If Nawaz Sharif can concentrate for long enough to pay a little attention to this story, he may find in it many parallels of importance.

For example, Frankenstein's creation was destined to self-destruct because its creator was inherently incapable of understanding the real-life dynamics of his creature. The same holds true for Zia's democracy, for which Sharif currently claims to be fighting. In the last quarter of 1997, the series of crises which hit Sharif's government — despite his "historic mandate" — are not very different from the crisis with which Frankenstein's monster was faced soon after taking his first breath. And just as no one had a clue about what was happening to Frankenstein's creation, few can understand what is happening to Sharif's second term in office.

Why, for instance, does a prime minister elected with a two-thirds majority need anti-dissent laws to control his legislators? How can a toothless president bring an elected government to the brink of collapse? Why is the entire judicial system of this country jeopardised to save one man from apologising for his injudiciousness?

The government has grappled to come up with its own answers to these questions, amidst ill-intentioned individuals holding high office. It has tried to ascribe all its woes to palace intrigues which, apparently, stubbornly refuse to say die. It has even tried to revive the bogey of an international conspiracy, in which a strong and stable Pakistan automatically becomes a threat to the entire non-Muslim world. But none of this desperate searching for a scapegoat has convinced the proverbial common man. He remains puzzled about the exact nature of the killer disease which has brought a premature end to every elected government in this country over the last decade.

How can a toothless president bring an elected government to the brink of collapse?

Back to Frankenstein's monster or, more appropriately, Zia's democracy. Zia's democracy came into being in 1985, a system affectionately referred to as "quasi-democracy" by cynical Pakistani analysts. But while a lot was written about its peculiar structure — which allowed an unelected public servant to concentrate power in his own hands despite the presence of a popularly elected prime minister — little attention was paid to the sorts of problems to which such an arrangement might lead. Generally, the new era of democracy was welcomed and hailed as the much-awaited release from Zia's dictatorial stranglehold.

Indeed, it could have been so, except that an exhausted and ill-prepared opposition suddenly found itself wandering in unfamiliar territory. At the time, General Zia controlled all organs of the state, including the press. The only thing he did not have firmly in his grasp was a direct link to the people. But instead of opting for the obvious plan of action — via the people — political parties en masse chose to play the game in which General Zia not only controlled the rules, but also could change them at any time.

For the first three years, even the players were all of his own choosing. What these players ignored completely was the stunningly deceptive nature of the game. Its objective, they were told, was to foster democracy. But the rules laid down for them by higher authorities decreed that their victory would actually be their defeat. In 1985, they were told that democracy meant that people were empowered to elect governments. But that section of the rules which stated that democracy also empowered the people to remove elected governments was carefully hidden from view. The politicians willingly passed the Eighth Amendment.

In 1988, they were told that democracy meant the decentralisation of power. But no one explained the context in which this decentralisation was supposed to work. Out of context, decentralization and destabilisation became homonyms, and a legitimate provincial government successfully destabilised an equally legitimate federal government. In 1990, they were told that elections were the only means of playing the game called democracy. No one bothered to find out what kind of elections led to democracy, nor was anyone concerned that winning elections required solid roots among the people.

All that they were told was that election results were sacrosanct, even if they were manufactured by military establishments working through the presidency. In 1993, they were told that democracy was a game of numbers, and whoever had the crucial numbers in hand would sit in Islamabad. No one talked about the fact that the numbers game had no place for the will of the people. Playing dutifully by these rules, politicians relentlessly fought for a particular kind of democracy which, like Frankenstein's monster, was destined to self-destruct.

In 1988, they were told that democracy meant the decentralisation of power. But no one explained the context in which this decentralisation was supposed to work

As such, their defeat was built into the moment of their greatest victory. And that is precisely the moment Nawaz Sharif now faces. Consider his government's internal constitution as well as its relationship to other organs of the state. First, consider the Pakistan Muslim League and its relevance to the government currently in office. General Zia despised political parties. Since he believed that they were irrelevant to the running of a state, the 1985 elections were held on a party-less basis. General Zia has since exited the scene, but one glimpsed a chilling reminder of his convictions during a recent television interview by Sharif’s law minister, Khalid Anwar.

Describing the PML’s victory, Khalid Anwar forcefully argued that while the party may have played a part in the 1997 elections, the people's mandate was essentially given to the person of Nawaz Sharif. This appraisal of the election results knocks out the contribution of over 400 PML legislators in the national and provincial assemblies, who campaigned energetically to make Sharif's historic mandate possible. Given that no one tried to correct Mr. Anwar, it can reasonably be assumed that his words had the nod of approval from the very highest quarters. Next, consider the legislature. When the Eighth Amendment was tabled before the 1985 parliament, the legislature wanted to debate the bill before coming to any decision. This incensed Zia, who immediately sent them a message that they could either accept the Eighth Amendment or go home permanently. The House meekly rubber-stamped the amendment.

Sharif, as a popularly elected prime minister, is doing exactly the same. In fact, Nawaz Sharif has has gone even further than General Zia in quashing legislators. His parliament does not even know if a constitutional amendment bill is in the offing, as it sits debating the health of pregnant cows in rural Punjab. And just as Zia clipped his parliament's wings by compelling it to pass the Eighth Amendment, Sharif has forced his assembly to muzzle its own mouth by getting it to pass an anti-dissent law. If you do not agree with Nawaz Sharif you are out. To keep the record straight, however, it should be mentioned that a cabinet meeting is in fact held prior to any important measure being taken. In it, the cabinet formally authorises Sharif to make the final decision.

Then, consider the executive. Zia, as we have already noted, despised elected representatives. Consequently, he kept his kitchen cabinet restricted to a select few whose only constituency was the general himself. Sharif is no different. His kitchen cabinet, headed by his illustrious father, has a plethora of indirectly elected senators, including law minister Senator Khalid Anwar, whose contempt for the PML is obvious from his television interview, mentioned above.

His parliament does not even know if a constitutional amendment bill is in the offing, as it sits debating the health of pregnant cows in rural Punjab

Also among this crew of august personalities are accountability supremo Senator Saifur Rehman, Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation chairman Senator Pervez Rashid, finance minister Senator Sartaj Aziz and information minister Senator Mushahid Hussain. One of the few PML MNAs to have been given an important portfolio, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, meanwhile, threatens daily to resign because no one listens to him. Finally, consider the judiciary. General Zia had no patience for independent judges and thought nothing of replacing the ones who did not agree with him.

Sharif has demonstrated the same tendency and, as in everything else, has surpassed his mentor in achieving his objectives. The judiciary today lies in ruins, devastated by the kind of power politics that was once the domain of political parties alone. For the first time in the judicial history of the world, not just Pakistan, a country has in effect seen two Supreme Courts begin proceedings on the same day. Sharif has succeeded in achieving what Zia set out to do when he was cut short by destiny. Between him and Bhutto, they have destroyed every political institution that Zia feared.

The late dictator could not have hoped for more competent lieutenants. And from here onwards, it is not too difficult to look into the future. Although the great game has now moved into its final stages, the closing moves remain to be made. Parliament has already been tamed and the presidency conquered. But the judiciary, despite having been beaten into temporary submission, continues to demonstrate annoying spurts of independence. This needs to be taken care of. There is no doubt that the new, pliant presidency will be of great assistance in this small matter, but one can expect more blood to be shed before a final victor emerges.

Next in the line of Sharif’s fire will be the army, the holiest of Pakistan's holy cows. So far, it has determined the rules of the game and succeeded in controlling the monster it created in 1985. But how long it can continue to pull the strings is a question we must now consider. The monster is threatening to run amok and, having tasted the power of setting its own rules, is unlikely to take any more dictation. The army may resist, but Sharif has won tougher battles. After all, the army is as straightjacketed an institution as was the judiciary.

Sooner or later, the people will tire of his glorious victories in the citadels of power and begin to ask what these victories mean for them

Consequently, what worked with the judiciary can also work with the army. It was the numbers game which made Sharif prime minister and helped him conquer the judiciary. The same numbers game can help him vanquish the army. Unfortunately for Pakistan, though, even this will not be the final round of the great game. Having neutered all organs of the state, Sharif’s last challenge will be the people themselves. Preoccupied as he is at present with his games of power politics, he has no time to address the issues that reign at the grassroots.

Sooner or later, the people will tire of his glorious victories in the citadels of power and begin to ask what these victories mean for them. Another problem that Sharif may come to face when he is at his powerful best is the problem of institutions. Democracy is a system which works through institutions, which act as levers through which the great democratic machine is driven. But having destroyed every one of the system's institutions, he will suddenly discover himself in the driving seat of a car with no steering wheel or brakes.

The legislature, finding no role for itself, will have lost interest in its job. The judiciary, currently the only buffer between the people and the state, will be too scared to rule against the government. The executive, meanwhile, with no checks on it from any direction, will run amok. At that stage, Nawaz Sharif may find the whole idea of a western-style parliamentary democracy a little distasteful. The vote bank that he currently commands already falls to the right of the political divide. As such advancing the argument that the western form of democracy does not suit the Pakistani genius should not be too great a leap for him to make. In doing so, Nawaz Sharif will not be making history. Rather, he will simply be taking the county one step further on the road already laid down by a dictator way back in 1985.

This article was originally published in the Herald's January 1998 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.