Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in a ju­di­cial coup has thrown Pak­istan into po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. The ac­tors have changed but the tor­tu­ous plot­line is all too fa­mil­iar

India Today - - COVER STORY PAKISTAN - By Wa­ja­hat S. Khan in Lahore

Spoiler alert. The Red Wed­ding is a mas­sacre dur­ing the ‘War of the Five Kings’, an episode shot in grue­some de­tail and chill­ing speed to be the sea­son three fi­nale of the hit HBO fan­tasy se­ries, Game of Thrones. In it, Lord Walder Frey, a cyn­i­cal wheeler-dealer, takes re­venge against the ro­bust con­tender King Robb Stark for break­ing the mar­riage pact be­tween House Stark and House Frey, kills young King Robb, his preg­nant wife, mother, ban­ner­men and sol­diers at a fam­ily wed­ding. Caught by sur­prise but con­vinced of their no­ble in­tent and en­ti­tle­ment till their last-drawn breaths, al­most all the Starks are wiped out, in one vi­o­lent, co­or­di­nated master move. In the game of thrones, writes au­thor Ge­orge R.R. Martin, you win, or you die. There is no mid­dle ground.

If you’re a Pak­istani, the plot line isn’t merely ironic. But un­for­tu­nately for him, Nawaz Sharif is no Game of Thrones fan, or he would have sensed what was coming. He’s never read the fan­tasy books, ei­ther, and is not in a po­si­tion to pre­dict any form of

screen­play. In fact, it is said that Sharif doesn’t read much at all ex­cept for the sum­maries that have al­ready been re­cited to him, and the op-ed sec­tion of an Urdu rag firmly al­lied with his party, the Pak­istan Mus­lim League (Nawaz) PML(N). His con­se­quent my­opia in the Panama case too—in­clud­ing the tardy me­dia plan­ning, push­ing the army’s but­tons, flirt­ing with In­dia, bungling the equi­lib­rium with the Arab states, a le­gal strat­egy that wouldn’t survive a day in a law school moot court, and a money trail more cre­ative than an Ocean’s 11 heist—has been largely self-in­flicted.

Yet, de­spite what he and his clans­men have been through since last week—their very own po­lit­i­cal mas­sacre of sorts—Nawaz Sharif con­tin­ues to be Nawaz Sharif: de­fi­ant, static, ready to hit the sack at 10 pm, and still the leader of the long­est rul­ing po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty the Is­lamic re­pub­lic has seen.


The only elected prime min­is­ter in the world to have been de­throned three times—by a con­sti­tu­tion­ally-elected pres­i­dent in 1993, a mil­i­tary usurper in 1999, and an in­quis­i­tive supreme court last week—it’s most probably Sharif’s lack of dy­namism which may have done him in for good this time.

In ret­ro­spect, the case could have been bet­ter po­lit­i­cally man­aged. By mid-2016, when the Panama leaks started drip­ping into his fam­ily quar­ters, Sharif had mul­ti­ple plays at his dis­posal: pro­tracted ne­go­ti­a­tions with the op­po­si­tion, em­pow­er­ing the ac­count­abil­ity in­ves­ti­ga­tors to go on a wild goose chase, let­ting Im­ran Khan get bogged down with an­other long-drawn protest, even ask­ing the mil­i­tary for help by cut­ting the right deals on the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (the army wanted to be on a com­mis­sion to man­age the project) and, of course, be­haviour on In­dia.

In­stead, Sharif mis­cal­cu­lated. Rather than stalling a scan­dal that was clearly headed for the courts, Sharif ac­tively in­spired the in­qui­si­tion. As his kids went on chat show af­ter chat show, he made a hap­haz­ard na­tional ad­dress, and even fol­lowed it up with an apolo­getic speech on the floor of par­lia­ment, all while his in­for­ma­tion ma­chine—read, his daugh­ter and spon­sored trolls—took to Twitter and tried to man­age the same-old-same-

old me­dia and po­lit­i­cal al­lies with the same-old-same-old pat­terns of pa­tron­age: jun­kets, ad­ver­tise­ments and a juicy story or two about the army and/ or Khan.

Dis­turbingly un­fazed, Sharif con­tin­ued as if it was busi­ness as usual: in­con­se­quen­tial in­ter­na­tional vis­its, hours of rib­bon cut­tings, show­ing off for months about some new Moody’s rank­ing or the stock ex­change, chaf­ing the ISI with the in­ter­nally-en­gi­neered leaks to the press (the en­tire Dawn leaks saga), a dossier on Kash­mir that never saw the light of day at the UN, zero cab­i­net reshuf­fles, crack­ing down on an in­sur­gent Im­ran, even the meet­ing with In­dian ty­coon Sa­j­jan Jin­dal. It was as if noth­ing had hap­pened, and that Panama was a hat, or a canal, rather than a mor­tal threat.

More­over, so dis­or­gan­ised was his en­tire le­gal de­fence game, and so badly man­aged his op­tics, that af­ter barely sur­viv­ing the first ver­dict in April by 3-2, the for­ma­tion of the same joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion team (JIT) that brought upon his damn­ing end was cel­e­brated with lad­doos by his min­is­ters.

On the last day of the hear­ings, as his newly-hired lawyers—some of the best in the busi­ness but clearly not up to speed with the com­plex­i­ties of the months-long case and JIT am­bush—bum­bled like ner­vous school­boys. The most ex­cit­ing piece of news his in­for­ma­tion min­istry could put out was a statis­tic, and a plea: that the Panama case had en­joyed over 2,600 hours of prime-time news pro­gram­ming, and that ‘ru­mours’ about the PM’s old­est com­rade, the pow­er­ful and pro-es­tab­lish­ment in­te­rior min­is­ter Nisar Ali Khan, should be ig­nored.

A day be­fore the dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion judg­ment, Nisar re­signed any­way, mov­ing away from the calamity that the rest of Team Nawaz was, till the morn­ing of the ver­dict, still spin­ning it as some pe­cu­liar in­ter­na­tional con­spir­acy against CPEC, if not a home-brewed one. Mean­while, as his home­town of Lahore suf­fered a mas­sive sui­cide bomb at­tack, and copies of the undis­closed iqa­mas (work per­mits of the Gulf states) is­sued to him and his top min­is­ters—and pos­si­ble re­place­ments—em­bar­rass­ingly ap­peared, Sharif left for the sink­ing is­lands of the Mal­dives. Nero, thy name is Nawaz, wailed Pak­istan. Thus, the main­stream was lost.


Yet, so com­plex and es­o­teric are the le­gal prece­dents set in the April 28 judg­ment that the air isn’t yet clear about the sta­tus of Sharif’s dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Is be­ing charged for not be­ing sadiq and ameen—es­sen­tial mer­its for a good Mus­lim en­shrined within the Pak­istani Con­sti­tu­tion by Sharif’s own friend and men­tor, the late dic­ta­tor Gen­eral Zia ul-Haq, as a pre­req­ui­site for par­lia­men­tary mem­ber­ship—a tem­po­rary or a per­ma­nent scar? Here, his party claims he will be back, but his lawyers seem to have hung up their boots.

Also not clear: the fate of the pend­ing cases against him, his heir-ap­par­ent daugh­ter, sons, sonin-law and deputy/brother-in-law, the wily fi­nance min­is­ter Ishaq Dar, which will now be heard over the next few months by the ac­count­abil­ity courts.

Legally, their Red Wed­ding is well laid out. The Supreme Court of Pak­istan isn’t a trial court, so it has passed a ver­dict about Sharif’s moral stand­ing in prin­ci­ple, based

on con­sti­tu­tional grounds for not dis­clos­ing in­come. The more dra­matic crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings, on ghost mills and fake fonts—open hear­ings, packed courts, ar­rest war­rants, and de­tails from the clan­des­tine Vol­ume X of the JIT re­port, which is ru­moured to show even more of the Shar­ifs’ fi­nan­cial un­der­belly, re­plete with damn­ing in­puts from other coun­tries—are yet to come, and is to be mon­i­tored by an SC judge from the same panel that dis­qual­i­fied him. And that doesn’t count the un­end­ing amount of leaked doc­u­ments and dis­clo­sures which keep on mys­te­ri­ously ap­pear­ing on all me­dia. Thus, the next phase of tri­als isn’t go­ing to be the Shar­ifs’ Starks ver­sus the ju­di­cial Freys or the armed Lan­nis­ters. Soon enough, even the com­mon Wildlings will have breached the Wall.

As for busi­ness as usual, it’s now the army’s turn to act non­cha­lant. The last po­lit­i­cally loaded state­ment by Gen­eral Head­quar­ters was weeks ago, on the same day the JIT find­ings were re­leased, when the blood was in the wa­ter.

Then, the army had vowed to “con­tinue sup­port­ing and en­abling na­tional ef­forts to play [a] pos­i­tive role in line with Pak­istan’s na­tional in­ter­ests”. How­ever, within days, a new counter-in­sur­gency op­er­a­tion was launched in Khy­ber, Gen­eral Qa­mar Javed Bajwa vowed to make CPEC a suc­cess (“come what may”, he said), Balochis­tan was announced as a top na­tional se­cu­rity pri­or­ity, at­tacks on the Fron­tier Corps were thwarted, the In­dian DGMO “warned”, cease­fire vi­o­la­tions “re­pulsed”, and the Amer­i­cans and Afghans cau­tioned about their “blame game” and cog­ni­sance re­it­er­ated about the pend­ing Afghanistan pol­icy brew­ing in Wash­ing­ton. There was even a visit to a tank fac­tory by the chief. In a heady July, it was as if Pak­istan’s sol­diers ex­isted on an­other realm al­to­gether, nowhere close to the chaos of Panama.

The fire­wall was de­lib­er­ate. On the day Nawaz Sharif was dis­qual­i­fied, 110 square kilo­me­tres of the treach­er­ous Ra­j­gal Val­ley on the Af-Pak bor­der were claimed cleared. Most iron­i­cally, the day Sharif left the Prime Min­is­ter House for his favourite hill sta­tion Mur­ree, the army chief put on his Blue Pa­trol cer­e­mo­nial din­ner dress, and vowed to fight and die with the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army at a Chi­nese em­bassy gala. Af­ter run­ning for al­most a month, the GHQ’s plot­line fi­nally be­came clear: the Pak­istan army wants noth­ing to do with the Panama bed­lam. But the fire­wall is not nec­es­sar­ily per­ma­nent, es­pe­cially if the Shar­ifs de­cide to play rough.

Of course, given their in­sti­tu­tion’s his­tory with the for­mer PM, in­di­vid­ual ac­counts by serv­ing and re­tired of­fi­cers re­lay re­lief, even glee, about Sharif’s plight. Also, a mys­te­ri­ously hyper­ac­tive so­cial me­dia is churn­ing out memes, pro­jec­tions, po­etry, mu­sic videos, even po­ten­tial con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments for a pres­i­den­tial sys­tem (which would favour Im­ran, of course), and maps for smaller prov­inces, all cel­e­brat­ing the fall of the Shar­ifs and their takht Lahore.

Tellingly, no PML(N) func­tionary or part­ner has man­aged to pro­duce a shred of cred­i­ble ev­i­dence to date, di­rectly or in­di­rectly link­ing the mil­i­tary with the mad­ness. But one good read of the JIT re­port, and it’s pretty ob­vi­ous: much of the dig­ging and draft­ing of the court-sanc­tioned in­ves­tiga-

tion was con­ducted with a fer­vent war­rior ethic: thinker, lawyer, sol­dier, spy.


The fu­ture of Pak­istan’s new­est su­per­hero it­self is in­creas­ingly murky. In day­light, Im­ran Khan is the King Slayer; the Kaptaan has sin­gle­hand­edly led the Panama charge against the Shar­ifs for 16 months, and has never been more po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful. But in the dark, his demons arise. An hour af­ter the in­terim PM was sworn in, his party, the Pak­istan Tehreek-e-In­saf (PTI) saw the de­par­ture of an im­por­tant party-mem­ber, the young Aye­sha Gu­lalai, who claimed that Khan sex­u­ally ha­rassed her via text mes­sages. By the next morn­ing, ref­er­ences for dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion had been filed against Khan. Last month saw an­other PTI de­fec­tion, as well as the be­gin­ning of Khan’s own sadiq and ameen hear­ings (pe­ti­tioned by the Shar­ifs, tar­get­ing his own fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sures linked to his Lon­don and Is­lam­abad prop­er­ties). For now, yes, he is favoured by a mid­dle-class es­tab­lish­ment as an up­per-class hero and an­tithe­sis to the mogul mind­set of the Shar­ifs.

If Khan also goes, the flood­gates will open. The Zar­daris, with a slowly ma­tur­ing Bi­lawal and a near in­vis­i­ble Asif, will also have to face the courts. There’s enough data out there against many prom­i­nent mem­bers of the Pak­istan Peo­ples Party (PPP) for a po­lit­i­cal blood­bath in Sindh. Thus, Bi­lawal’s ad­mis­sion that he did not eat mithai on the day of the Sharif ver­dict was poignant. The PPP has no rea­son to cel­e­brate, only to plan: how, as the pro­jected third largest vote-get­ter in the next elec­tions, can it play the role of a coali­tion part­ner and/ or king­maker? In the current scheme, the PML(N) and Khan’s PTI will vie for noth­ing but the Pun­jab. The PPP will have to weaken and sup­port both sides just enough so that they don’t slay the PPP it­self, but each other. And yes, Machi­avel­lian as they are, the Zar­daris will con­tinue to play ball with the mil­i­tary.

The tran­si­tion so far has been smooth. Many con­sider the in­terim prime min­is­ter, Shahid Khaqan Ab­basi, a good guy. But the straight-shoot­ing, num­ber-crunch­ing, for­mer min­is­ter of oil and gas, a geeky UCLA en­gi­neer from the moun­tains of Mur­ree who prefers to meet friends at hip cof­fee shops, has a prob­lem big­ger than the ac­count­abil­ity in­ves­ti­ga­tion he him­self is fac­ing in an en­ergy deal—in an in­creas­ingly po­larised polity, he’s a Sharif loy­al­ist.

The more he plays Nawaz up, as Ab­basi did in his in­au­gu­ral speech on Au­gust 1, the harder it will be for him to gov­ern. His party’s longer play is also com­plex. To keep loy­al­ties in­tact and stem de­fec­tions, the fam­ily was forced to leak their suc­ces­sion plan merely hours af­ter the ver­dict. In it, the younger Sharif—Shah­baz, the ef­fi­cient CM, ul­ti­mate wing­man, and watcher of Fortress Pun­jab—would take over from Ab­basi af­ter the 45-day in­terim pe­riod. The pro­gres­sives will scream nepo­tism, but who cares? It all stays in the fam­ily.

At first glance, the plan makes sense. Shah­baz has a more pli­ant re­la­tion­ship with the mil­i­tary, is far more dy­namic and en­er­getic than his brother, and can probably mi­cro­man­age the fed­eral and re­mote con­trol the pro­vin­cial set-up the Shar­ifs have built their house on, till the gen­eral elec­tions next year. He’s got less than a year to go, any­way.

But a le­gal trap has been laid. The damn­ing Hu­daibya Pa­per Mills case, and less im­por­tant Model Town killings in­ci­dent—the only two scan­dals the younger Sharif could be tainted with— stay un­re­solved. If his brother and party stray away and stop play­ing nice, Shah­baz and his am­bi­tious son, Hamza, too could get slammed. Thus, all the Starks would go. But that episode is yet to play out. For the Shar­ifs, win­ter is coming. Per­haps it is al­ready here.


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