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Nawaz Sharif: His crime and punishment

Updated Feb 28, 2019 04:37pm
Illustration by Amara Sikander
Illustration by Amara Sikander

Who is this man of means who appears in a court almost every day to face charges of graft?

He is Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the only Pakistani to be elected prime minister thrice and the chief minister of the largest province twice. He is also the only prime minister in Pakistan's history whose dismissal by the president in 1993 was set aside by the Supreme Court. No politician in the country has been more fortunate than him. And no Pakistani politician has been as unfortunate as him, for he was removed from the post of prime minister thrice, disqualified from holding public office twice, forced into exile for nearly a decade and sentenced to various lengths of imprisonment, including once for life.

Over the last 17 months or so alone, he has been declared ineligible to be a member of Parliament - and, thus, barred from being the prime minister - by the Supreme Court and awarded 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, alongside massive financial penalties, by an accountability court for owning expensive residential properties in London. In another case concerning a steel mill that his family set up in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s, he has been sentenced to seven years in jail and has been fined 25 million US dollars. While his daughter and son-in-law have also been convicted and sentenced along with him, his party has lost its grip over Punjab in the July 2018 elections after 10 years of continuous rule in the province. He still faces at least one more inquiry and may well be convicted and sentenced again. His brother and three-time chief minister of Punjab, Shehbaz Sharif, is also facing multiple charges of graft as are some other members of their immediate family and many of their loyalists.

How has he come to this pass?

It is a long story and there are extremely intriguing turns in Nawaz Sharif's career. We have to find out why he was abandoned by the forces that had patronised him for nearly two decades. And how did he move from the right side of the judiciary to its wrong one?

It seems three factors have played a decisive role in Nawaz Sharif's fall. First, his desire to be a real prime minister with full powers. Secondly, a streak of impetuosity in his character that impels him to take drastic actions without weighing the risks. And, thirdly, his inability to realise that nobody could be an elected keeper of the folks and a robber baron at the same time. There is also an ironical twist to his career: he soared high as an innocuous and innocent politician but was felled when he appeared to have become a political heavyweight to be reckoned with.

As a young man with plenty of money to spend without earning it, Nawaz Sharif started flirting with politics under air marshal (retired) Asghar Khan's party, Tehreek-e-Istiqlal. He was without recommendation except for the money his father is reported to have set apart for investment in his political career - and which was profitably spent. He owed his rise in politics to three army generals. General Ghulam Jilani, the Punjab governor and former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, gave the break Nawaz Sharif needed by making him finance minister in the provincial government in 1981 and nominating him as Punjab's chief minister after the party-less election of 1985. General Ziaul Haq chose him to secure Punjab as the defender of their shared objective of Islamising the society by pumping enormous money into the province's economy. And General Hamid Gul who, as the ISI chief, helped Nawaz Sharif in 1988 by fostering the formation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), a coalition of mostly right-wing parties opposed to Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). When PPP still managed to win more National Assembly seats from Punjab than IJI did, Gul ensured that Nawaz Sharif retained his hold over Punjab as chief minister to help contain the government of Benazir Bhutto at the centre.

Nawaz Sharif remembered all this. When he became prime minister in 1990, he declared completion of Zia's mission as his goal. The then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, had won his office in a bargain with Benazir but, as a warrior from the Zia camp, he had a soft corner for Nawaz Sharif. He, however, had inflated ambitions of his own. Nawaz Sharif did not like the president's habit of sitting on files. He also wanted a repeal of the constitution's Article 58-2 (b) which empowered the president to dissolve the National Assembly in his discretion - but the president would not hear this. The prime minister also wanted his say in the appointment of the chiefs of armed forces but the president surprised him by appointing General Abdul Waheed Kakar as the new chief of army staff (COAS). Nawaz Sharif allowed the streak of impetuosity to get the better of his judgment. In an address to the nation, he strongly denounced the president for conspiring against him. The very next day, the president sacked him by dissolving the National Assembly. The Supreme Court struck down the president's order, the first and so far the only instance of its kind. Nawaz Sharif was back in power but his failure to get rid of the Punjab chief minister, who had the president's backing, persuaded the army chief to give marching orders to the president and the prime minister both.

Nawaz Sharif did not give up the fight. When he returned to power with a huge majority in Parliament in 1997, the first thing he did was to get rid of Article 58-2 (b). He did not display the courtesy to inform president Farooq Leghari, a Benazir nominee-turned-nemesis. Next he managed to secure the Supreme Court chief justice's downfall and his party workers did not hesitate to storm the apex court. Then, president Leghari was forced to quit. In 1998, Nawaz Sharif appealed to the people's hearts by detonating more nuclear devices than India had done some days earlier.

Finally, in another fit of impetuosity, he overreacted to COAS General Jehangir Karamat's suggestion about the formation of a National Security Council, something that had repeatedly been advocated by his own mentor, Zia. He, thus, sowed the seed of his ouster on October 12, 1999 when he tried to repeat the drama by sacking General Pervez Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif not only lost his office but also earned life imprisonment for plane hijacking and was lucky to get a reprieve and become a guest of the Saudi king. The army did not mind his return in 2008 and in a way helped him by withdrawing its support from his party's breakaway faction. He was allowed to win the 2013 election but he was on a short leash. When he continued trying to be a real prime minister, he was abandoned by his long-time patrons.

In his early life, Nawaz Sharif only spent the money that was made by his father, one of his uncles and his younger brother. He saw no harm in making money after gaining power, as it was being amassed by fellow entrepreneurs and others including his patrons in the establishment. Making money appeared to be good regardless of means but he made two critical mistakes. First, he forgot that a politician has no private life and he cannot conceal anything from the public. Secondly, he engaged lawyers to pull him out of trouble and not to prevent him from getting into it.

Nawaz Sharif was surprised when the petition for his trial on the basis of the Panama Leaks was admitted by the Supreme Court. He was perhaps banking on his support of the lawyers' movement, his decision to quit the coalition with PPP on its reluctance to resolve the case of judges sidelined by Musharraf and the contribution his 2009 Long March had made to their restoration. Once the first step to try him had been taken, the writing on the wall became clear.

During Nawaz Sharif's early days in power, the intelligentsia relished joking about his memory or attention span being short. When he was in exile, many wondered whether he was learning any lessons. He was. The first indication of this came when he joined hands with Benazir to sign the Charter of Democracy, a document of great value for the protection and promotion of democracy in Pakistan. Then his party joined the effort to draft and pass the 18th Constitutional Amendment - mainly to devolve power to the provinces but also to rid the Constitution of many anomalies inserted in it by military regimes and quasi-democratic governments.

Yet, he also displayed some impetuous traits of his past. A few months after quitting the ruling coalition in 2008, he abandoned a core principle of the Charter of Democracy by destabilising an elected government through his long march for the restoration of judges. Later, he would also court both the judiciary and the judges to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the PPP's administration.

In his third term as prime minister, however, Nawaz Sharif demonstrated considerable political acumen by giving the National Party, a predominantly Baloch political party, its first chance to make a government in Balochistan and by declining to be a party to obstructing Pakistan Tehreek-e- Insaf's assumption of power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But his lack of interest in organising his own party as well as his failure to strengthen Parliament made him vulnerable.

As his fall became imminent in the summer of 2017, his camp portrayed him as a victim of his desire to have peaceful neighbourly relations with India. If this story is true, one wonders how history will judge him.


The writer is a senior journalist, peace activist and human rights advocate.


This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.