In 2008, Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan after almost seven years of exile. He found out that he was as popular in central and northern Punjab as he was when he left the country. Besides that, he started to ride the wave of popularly expressed sentiments—mostly by the Punjabi middle-class-led phenomenon of electronic media commonly referred to as news channels— in favour of rule or law and democracy as the only option for Pakistani society to move forward. People, or more precisely the chattering classes of Pakistani society, appeared fed up with military rule and the problems it had brought into social and political life. Rule of law, democracy and public debate about everything under the sun became not only fashionable with the advent of electronic media, but they were seen as panacea for the ills of Pakistani society. Military rule and the authoritarian ways of the military junta were seen as outdated, both politically and socially. This was the new political morality, the sentiments for which were being championed by the rising stars of news channels—the anchors, commentators, analysts and star reporters of newly launched news channels, most of whom could be described as coming from the Punjabi middle classes.
Nawaz Sharif very tactfully inserted himself in the driving seat of this wave of popular sentiments. It was easy for him. Public opinion polls, then, were describing him as the most popular leader in central and northern Punjab—two regions of the country’s largest province where most of the national assembly constituencies were located. As a popular leader who is advocating rule of law, democracy and a culture of public debate, Nawaz Sharif endeared himself to the dominant segment of Punjabi middle-class-led electronic media. Everything was hunky-dory: Nawaz Sharif was popular and he had political morality on his side. The country’s chattering classes were ever ready to endorse his claim to be leading champion of political morality in the country.
In the post-Musharraf period, Nawaz Sharif’s image as champion of political morality, heavily endorsed by Punjabi middle-class-led news channels, was central to his rise again to the status of national leader. Of course he was popular, but there were hurdles in the way, as he had been convicted by law courts in several cases. By the time he again took oath as Prime Minister in 2013, all his convictions had been overturned. His image as champion of political morality played a small part in turning the public opinion in support of court judgments that overturned his convictions. News channels and their leading persons who were in the midst of a frenzy in support of rule of law, democracy and civilian dominance of the political system, came all-out in support of Nawaz Sharif’s return to politics in 2008.
Today, Nawaz Sharif is in exile again. It is a self-imposed exile. But this time, he is hardly the champion of political morality.
Things have changed, and unluckily for Nawaz Sharif, for the worse. He is again a convict and in exile, but this time, the Punjabi middle-class-led news community is deeply divided and each warring group that it comprises has its own hero to praise. There seems to be no consensus on the values of political morality like rule of law, democracy and civilian dominance of the system. And last but not least, Nawaz Sharif’s own position in public life is considered morally deficient, to say the least. His legal status is unclear: whether he is a fugitive of law or on a judicially approved parole is not clear.
What is clear is the fact that as a member of the elitist group of Pakistani politics, he has been given the opportunity by our judicial system to proceed abroad for medical treatment. At the time of the decision, his health was said to be deteriorating at a fast pace and he was in medical condition which could have endangered his life. So, he was allowed to proceed to London. This was more than a year ago. Someone for whom the criminal justice system of the country has been bent and twisted to such an extent could not claim possession of political morality, at least in the eyes of the country’s middle classes – which have a penchant for moral pretensions of fairness and justice. Nawaz Sharif may still be the most popular leader in central and northern Punjab, but moral questions have a very strange property of corroding the popularity of political leaders, especially if they bank on the support of morality-driven political opinions of the middle classes. It is possible that Nawaz Sharif may still win the parliamentary elections. But this time, he won’t be riding the wave of popular sentiments expressed in the language of political morality.
As opposed to Nawaz Sharif, his main rival Imran Khan has never depended on political morality for his popularity. Imran Khan’s preferred tools for attracting popular sentiments are passion, emotions and hatred for his opponents. Therefore, when Imran Khan blocked the constitutional process during the process of voting on a no-confidence motion in the national assembly, it didn’t cause erosion of his popularity. There was, in fact, a groundswell of support from his traditional supporters.
What is likely to happen when the courts will again take up appeals against Nawaz Sharif’s conviction? With political morality not on his side, will only the crude and argumentatively flawed support of his voters and supporters permit Nawaz Sharif to dominate the system once again?
Difficult to answer.