Those in Pakistan not plagued by the common malady of fading memory remember too well that Nawaz Sharif—three-times- lucky PM of Pakistan—has not, even once in his previous two stints, been lucky enough to serve out his full elected term. With foreboding, they fear his bad luck may well revisit him in this third stint, too.
Nawaz is once again hobbled by increasing protest and agitation from his political opposition, spearheaded by an iconic Imran Khan, yesteryears’ cricket legend and today’s popularly acclaimed Mr Clean as compared to Nawaz’s popular image of a leader wallowing in miasma of corruption.
What may be akin to visitation of a ghost from the past, the latest challenge to his leadership of the country is eerily reminiscent of what transpired less than two years ago.
It was in the autumn of 2014 that Islamabad, Nawaz’s seat of governance and power, was under a virtual siege in the form of a mass dharna, a sit-in, organised by a combined opposition led by Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, and Allama Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek, or PAT. Qadri, a fire-brand cleric with a loyal following of millions of religiously-inspired Pakistanis from the country’s heartland in Punjab, lives in Canada but returns regularly to Pakistan-as he did recently, too-to organise popular agitations at times of his choosing.
Imran and Qadri couldn’t be more different from each other. Imran is a suave, western-educated scion of a wealthy family-a patrician in the truest sense of the term—while Qadri’s provenance is more of a plebeian, from the cadres of Punjab’s lower-middle class with no exposure to anything alien to its pristine culture.
Imran has legions of followers among the country’s educated, and enlightened upper-middle class youths and intelligentsia.
Qadri, by contrast, excites the imagination of millions of half-educated, or uneducated, semi-urban and mostly rural masses tethered to their centuries-old cultural moorings with a heavy overlay of religion.
Both Imran and Qadri have charisma, of differing aroma and flavour, which works like spell-binding magic on their followers. Each has the magical capacity to bring their aficionados by the hordes at the drop of a hat. And, above everything else, what bonds them together in a common cause is their hatred of Nawaz and his corrupt rule.
Back in 2014, Imran and Qadri came together to bring Islamabad under siege and paralysing stand-still for nearly two months, because of their belief that Nawaz had won the election of 2013 by resorting to organised fraud in tandem with an equally corrupt and tainted Election Commission. They demanded full and unbiased accountability from Nawaz and his corrupt cabal for short-changing the nation and foisting their tainted rule over Pakistan.
This time around, they profess to have an even more powerful and sensitive casus belli against Nawaz. It’s the Panama Papers, leaked back in April, that carry massive revelations against Nawaz’ off-spring—his two sons ensconced in London for two decades, and his daughter who has been in the limelight of Pakistani politics as one being groomed to succeed her father.
The papers shed light on half a dozen off-shore companies registered in the names of Nawaz’ progeny and give out details of expensive properties held in the name of these shady companies at some of London’s prime locations.
Ever since the Panama papers revelations there has been a hue and cry from political forces—as well as from the country’s intelligentsia and media gurus—calling upon Nawaz to come clean about his own finances and those of his children and other blood relatives.
However, instead of heeding the call to make a clean breast on how, and where, he and his clan acquired so much wealth as to have floated these impugned off-shore companies, Nawaz has been stalling. Soon after the popular backlash started he decamped to London for treatment for heart ailments of a suspect kind; he stayed away from the home front for nearly two months for ‘treatment and recuperation.’ Such is the vaulting unpopularity of the man that except for his loyalists—with dwindling cadres—few were prepared to digest the official version.
Imran and Qadri think they have a more powerful weapon in their hands than last time to bring Nawaz to his heels. They argue, with conviction, that his track record of ducking the issue is proof of his guilt. They are faulting him for violating the country’s election laws by not revealing anything about his family’s massive assets abroad.
They think they have a water-tight case to force the hands of the Election Commission—otherwise accused by Imran of being the B-Team of Nawaz—to declare him unfit to be a member of the Parliament. That outcome would topple the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N) government and pave the way for fresh elections—a development dreaded by Nawaz.
Imran has served notice to besiege the palatial Nawaz estate outside Lahore. But instead of taking the bull by its horns, Nawaz gives all indications of running away from the encounter.
As has been his wont in the past—to take off for safer climes abroad—Nawaz is all poised to whisk himself away to New York for an unspecified length of time, ostensibly to attend the UN General Assembly’s annual jamboree.
His detractors say he has imbibed this risible tactic, of the camel burying its head in the desert sand to not face the blowing storm, from his years of exile in Saudi Arabia. Nawaz stayed in the desert kingdom from 2000 to 2007 after the then Chief of Army Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Pervez Musharaff overthrew him in a coup in 1999.
However, one crucial imponderable that few seem ready to answer is: which side will the powerful military establishment throw its weight this time around? Back in 2014, they’d dissuaded Imran from turning the last screws on Nawaz. Will they repeat the act is the new million-dollar question.
Karamatullah K. Ghori
Former Pakistan Diplomat