Nawaz Sharif was a red rag for the system. He used to make the system furious every hour. He did compromise on a few things but did not compromise on many others. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he was getting powerful by the day and getting craftier. He could not be browbeaten easily. He had to be chucked out of the office the third time. This time the goal was achieved without the help of the ignominious 58-2B and without moving the Triple One Brigade.
All resources were moved. First, he was disqualified for life by the Supreme Court, then investigated under a Joint Investigation Team, then tried by an accountability court, convicted, stripped of his party’s presidency and thrown in jail along with his daughter. Later, his party was not allowed to form government in the Punjab and in the centre after a controversial election last year. So far so good? Not really. Troubled followed not long after.
The team put together through the 2018 electoral coup was inept. They knew everything except how to govern. The prime minister appointed a political novice as chief executive of the largest and the most developed province of Pakistan to replace exuberant and omnipresent Shehbaz Sharif. Asad Umar, the man touted as the elixir to all economic ailments of the country before elections, was let go just after eight months through a single phone call while he was about to clinch the deal with the IMF.
Slowly but surely Imran’s cabinet began to look like a crude replica of Musharraf’s regime. A band of World Bank and IMF guys were brought on board to steer the economy but the market confidence was shattered. Within a year, the GDP took a nosedive from almost six percent to 2.2 percent with all economic indicators of small and large-scale manufacturing, exports, agriculture and services going down the drain.
The prime minister had a choice to ignore the acrimonious past behind him and build a new legacy rebuilding the economy and institutions, something he had been pledging for over two decades since he founded his party. He did promise to achieve many goals when he made his victory speech from Banigala soon after he was given the victory sheet.
All that changed when he was booed in the National Assembly when he was elected leader of the house before taking oath. Fiery speeches by opposition leaders got under his skin as he earned the title of ‘Prime Minister Select’ from young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. Even though Shehbaz Sharif, Bilawal and his father Asif Zardari sounded reconciliatory and persuaded Maulana Fazalur Rehman to allow his MNAs to take oath despite allegations of massive election engineering, the prime minister turned to his ‘container mode’ and began to act more like an opposition leader than a responsible chief executive with the task of healing and uniting the country.
Since then we have seen political leaders being thrown behind bars, pending “investigations,” the parliament and its committees paralysed and press freedoms muzzled like never before.
The governance crisis coupled with economic meltdown and media gags have created a toxic environment where no section of the society felt any sympathy for the new dispensation. This is what created an environment of severe political polarization in the country. It is in this environment that Imran Khan announced the extension of Army Chief General Bajwa for a full three year term “in view of the regional security environment.” Many pundits thought that the prime minister’s action was aimed at buying an insurance policy, just like the PPP government.
Why did the prime minister pursue the vindictive path? Was it his choice or was it thrust upon him? Why didn’t he accept the olive branch extended to him at the start of his government? The only logical explanation so far is that his backers didn’t want him to accept the offer as that would have made him stronger politically. Only a weak and isolated leader accepts dictates of the powers that be. This is the lesson we get from Pakistan’s political history.
Now, with thousands of angry protesters sitting in Islamabad and furious PPP and PML-N challenging the political order, things have been pushed to the point of no return. Maulana Fazalur Rehman may leave the Sunday Bazaar of Islamabad but he is not leaving the political arena. He has demonstrated incredible political power and will continue to rattle the system even if he goes back.
During this acrimonious environment, the health of former president Asif Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has deteriorated in government custody. While the former president is still demanding access to his private doctors and possibly shifting to Sindh hospitals, the case of Nawaz Sharif is a major worry for the system.
Despite the drum beating of ‘No NRO’ by the prime minister and his cabal of advisors, the system was jolted when his health took a nosedive in October in NAB custody. Shifting Nawaz to NAB custody raised many red flags as the former prime minister was already in jail in a sentence awarded by the judge who admitted in black and white that he was blackmailed through compromising videos. The son of the former prime minister has already raised the question of possible poisoning. Nawaz has been granted bail by Lahore and Islamabad High Courts without any condition of travel abroad, but now the PTI-led administration has fallen in the trap of its toxic rhetoric. It has put new conditions, including furnishing new indemnity bonds worth billions to allow him to seek medical treatment abroad. The boards of government doctors have already stated that his diagnosis and treatment is not available in Pakistan but the government is demanding billions of rupees in fresh indemnity bonds over and above those already deposited with the courts. We have yet to see if the government concedes or the matter ends up in courts again. Either way, Imran’s administration has lost the opportunity to show magnanimity and has only reinforced its vengeful side.
As things stand, the system riddled with multiple crises. Things cannot continue the way they are. Something has got to give.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad