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Saturday, 30 April 2016
Discontent of the Sharifovs: Ayaz Amir
April 29, 2016
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto got himself elected MNA unopposed in the 1977 elections, his Jamaat-e-Islami opponent, Jan Muhammad Abbasi, physically prevented from filing his nomination papers. Newspapers were ‘instructed’ to eulogise this triumph.
The Bhutto government being increasingly authoritarian, most newspapers obliged and carried identical photos of the PM on their front pages, with the words: the great leader, the incomparable leader, etc. Few were taken in. The exercise provoked cynicism and laughter.
I was reminded of this after looking at newspapers yesterday with half-page government-sponsored ads screaming that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s name had been cleared in the Panama leaks, quoting this from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists: “Due to an editing error, a sentence in an earlier version of this story implied that the prime minister of Pakistan controlled an offshore company…It is his children who control the companies.”
Whoever thought otherwise? And the government, embattled and beleaguered, is celebrating this as a victory. And the cabinet, meeting after full seven months, congratulated the prime minister, ministers outdoing each other in praising the PM and extolling his leadership capacities.
This is what happens when the curtains fall on sense and understanding. The Bhutto photos in 1977 and the PML-N ads now bear a spiritual resemblance. Bhutto was a greater leader than the Sharifs, ten times over. But his fall is instructive…in his hour of peril all his intelligence seemed to desert him.
The Sharifs have been around in the corridors of power longer than anyone in Pakistan’s history. In 1981 when a youthful Nawaz Sharif was picked as Punjab finance minister by Governor Lt-Gen Ghulam Jilani, what were the Sharifs? Who had heard their names? But under the wings of that military regime they rose to power and glory and along the way, thanks to official patronage, amassed wealth and a never-ending stream of factories. Politics for them was always politics plus wealth-creation, the means a secondary consideration.
Pakistan was not enough of a happy hunting ground for them. They ventured overseas, into the realm of offshore accounts and Mayfair properties bought surreptitiously. The scandal emanating from that offshore capitalism is now threatening to undo their kingdom. But that’s not the real source of their unease. That lies elsewhere. Let me explain.
They have dominated Pakistani politics like no other political dynasty, not even the Bhuttos. Military dictators have held sway in Pakistan but no military dictator could ever start a political dynasty. That distinction belongs only to the Bhuttos and the Sharifs have outstripped them.
They have conquered other institutions and bent them to their will. Punjabi judges have come to their aid at crucial junctures: Punjabi judges helping foment a revolt in the Supreme Court against then CJ Sajjad Ali Shah when that judge was proving difficult for the then prime minister Sharif; and a Punjabi-dominated Supreme Court reinstating Nawaz Sharif as prime minister after president Ghulam Ishaq Khan had deposed him in 1993.
And Sharifs long ago mastered the art of turning the Punjabi-speaking civil service into something very akin to feudal servitors. Turn the most powerful telescopes which scan the skies onto the Punjabi civil service and it would be hard to detect any traces of independence. No bondage could be more complete.
But to the Sharifs’ unending distress the one institution that remains unconquered is the army. That is the one fly in their ointment, what leaves their mastery over other things incomplete.
Not that they haven’t tried to exert this mastery. In Nawaz Sharif’s first prime ministerial stint the man chosen to head the ISI was the born-again zealot, Lt-Gen Javed Nasir, who had a beard over a foot long and who on a plane ride to Kabul after the downfall of Najibullah startled everyone on board, including the American ambassador, by yelling, as soon as they entered Afghan airspace, “Nara-e-Takbeer, Allah-o-Akbar”.
The BMW dealership in Pakistan was owned by their henchman, Saifur Rehman, who was later made Ehtisab chief in Nawaz Sharif’s second prime ministership. The Sharifs knew only one way to win allegiance. As recounted by Shuja Nawaz in his history of the Pak army, ‘Crossed Swords’, from which I quoted last week too, reports reached Gen Asif Nawaz, the army chief and the author’s brother, the PM had gifted BMW cars to some generals. He writes: “One day (Gen Asif Nawaz) was visited by Shahbaz Sharif, who brought over the keys of a BMW, and said, ‘Abaji has sent as a gift to you’.” In Murree the PM tried the same gambit. Gen Nawaz, profoundly embarrassed, of course said no.
Individual generals may have been won over in this manner but an army chief in their pocket still eluded them. This might have changed if Nawaz Sharif had succeeded in making Ziauddin Butt army chief in 1999. But the army command revolted and we know what happened afterwards.
Gen Jahangir Karamat was the Sharifs’ benefactor in 1996. If he hadn’t teamed up with president Farooq Leghari to overthrow Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif would not have become PM for the second time. But they couldn’t even abide the soft-spoken Gen Karamat. They wanted a total yes-man and in their quest to get one they got Pervez Musharraf – who taught them a thing or two about yes-manship, just as all those years ago Gen Zia had taught yes-manship to Bhutto. The more things change…
Now the Sharifs face another troubled relationship with another army chief, their own appointed Raheel Sharif, for no other reason than that he is his own man, standing up for the army and doing things that needed to be done in Fata, in Karachi, in Rajanpur. He saved their government at the time of the dharnas in Aug 2014. Any other chief, I am almost ready to wager, would have stepped in. The temptation was too great, and the government’s authority lay shot to pieces on Constitution Avenue.
The army’s stock has been high these past two years because of the sustained campaign against weakness and terrorism. And the government whose ship looked pretty stable just a month ago has been badly hit by the Panama leaks and doesn’t know what to do.
Still, if it was only the Panama leaks, and only Imran Khan, the Sharifovs would have weathered this storm as they have survived other, potentially more damaging scandals over the years. But it is Gen Raheel Sharif’s popularity – even democracy’s cheerleaders coming to accept this – which is causing them the jitters.
A man riding so high in public estimation, how can he be free of political ambition? This is the PML-N’s thinking, judging Gen Raheel by their own standards, seeing conspiracies everywhere and now afraid of the shadows…fears and shadows magnified by the Panama revelations.
A fresh confrontation is shaping up across the national landscape…sparked by the Panama leaks, but underpinned by the widening distrust between the political front and the army.
There is another Sharif disability at work here. In her second term as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto had overcome much of the army’s traditional distrust of the PPP. By then she could conduct a civil conversation with Gen Waheed Kakar. The Sharifs even after all these long years in power can only talk tea and pakoras and luncheons with army chiefs and generals. They have no other conversation.
And since today’s generals are not into accepting BMWs, the chasm between the world of the Sharifs and the generals is well nigh unbridgeable.