This is not the first time. Three times has Nawaz Sharif found himself prematurely and controversially ousted from an entrenched position of power. Detractors quip this requires ‘special’ ineptitude. Those more sympathetic to him use the same as an illustration of how deeply intolerant the deep state is of any notions of autonomy. Interestingly, the modus operandi of these ousters neatly captures the three modes in which elected Pakistani prime ministers have historically been shown the door, other than through elections or parliamentary no-confidence motions. An old fashioned military coup; a presidential dismissal of government under the Constitution’s now-defunct Article 58(2)(b); and now the latest and most overtly constitutional mechanism — disqualification under the piety clauses of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution.
There is no room here to analyse and deconstruct. At a very minimum, it can be pointed out that the aforementioned removals range from the highly deplorable at worst to the highly controversial at best. They undermine constitutionalism, democratic continuity and separation of powers. They reveal politicisation of the judiciary or the judicialisation of politics, or both. In short, Nawaz Sharif – adore him or despise him, and that is a sign of our highly polarised times – is to many a martyr of sorts in the larger civil-military strife that has plagued our history. It is this and his ability and resilience to remerge, regroup and win back power – during his long journey from being the establishment’s foremost frontman to its most embattled opponent – that makes him significant for the future trajectory of Pakistani politics.
He is, thus, a champion of democracy but a reluctant or perhaps even accidental one and only in certain seasons. There is little democracy in his party, diseased as it is with nepotism and providing negligible space to merit. Nor has Sharif always dealt with his opponents as he would have them treat himself, having conspired against them with the same establishment that he has often confronted. Also, he is as flawed a champion as there ever was one.
For when he does come to power his governance leaves a lot to be desired: he does not appreciate our fundamental issues or favour structural and institutional reform; he has a weakness for wasteful monumental projects; he concedes space to religious radicals; he has very loose standards – to put it generously – on financial integrity and competence; he relishes sycophancy; he favours and uses parochial bureaucrats and other vested interest groups and thus promotes elite capture; he neglects areas other than central Punjab; he is ineffectual on foreign policy (though his hands are also largely tied here and, at least, he favours regional peace and non-military led policies); he resists necessary decentralisation; he has no eye for talent and substance; and he is a remarkably uninspiring public speaker.
Mere regularity of elections and the empty motions of a parliamentary democracy are inadequate for escaping poverty, tyranny and inequality. India is a good example of this, currently ravaged as it is by a belligerent and divisive populism. Lots more needs to be in place by way of citizen agency and empowerment, public accountability and good governance. But a framework and culture of constitutionalism is nevertheless essential for all that and elections and democratic continuity are vital prerequisites for the same. Sharif remains one of the most experienced politicians of the country who has also somewhat grown since the Charter of Democracy was signed by him and Benazir Bhutto in the mid-2000s.
After Benazir Bhutto’s tragic loss in 2007, he remains one of the few who have seen it all and who still commands a loyal following despite conventional endeavours to break up his party. He has a role to play yet, especially since he is in the very midst of the maelstrom surrounding the vital existentialist choices that Pakistan continues to face. He may well be a tested and poor choice, but his contextual significance is unavoidable. With such destiny thrust upon him, it remains to be seen whether he ends up as a depressing footnote or an elevating chapter in the country’s history.
The author has been the inaugural Henry J Steiner Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Harvard Law School. His debut novel, Snuffing Out the Moon, was published in 2017.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.