Thrice-bitten Nawaz Sharif does not appear to be shying away from going down that road, which has repeatedly prevented democracy from taking root, underlining the shortsightedness of Pakistan’s politicians for whom power has remained the only end
As Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of the besieged Palestinian Gaza Strip dominated the headlines globally, something significant in South Asia did not get as much coverage as it would have otherwise merited. Pakistan’s three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif ended his four-year self-imposed exile and returned home while the focus remained on the bombardment.
Sharif’s return is widely believed to have been brokered to enable him to make a political comeback before the general election in February, years after he was ousted from power in 2017 and disqualified for life from politics over corruption. The development comes against the backdrop of the Pakistani military establishment’s crackdown on former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) after the falling-out that culminated in his ouster and arrest.
It was perhaps no coincidence that the high court in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad granted speedy protective bail to Sharif and ended the threat of his immediate arrest. For four years, Sharif ignored court orders to return from London, where he managed to go in 2019 on the pretext of treatment while he was serving a seven-year prison sentence for graft.
Shehbaz Sharif, who led the government after Khan’s removal, began paving the way for his brother Nawaz Sharif’s political rehabilitation by changing the law to limit the disqualification of lawmakers from contesting elections. This was seen to be part of a deal with the military establishment, which has often been the kingmaker in Pakistan.
The military appears to have fallen back upon Nawaz Sharif, whose political career seemed to be over four years back. Sharif was scathing in his criticism of the military after his ouster from power for the third time in 2017. He has sounded conciliatory since his return, fuelling speculation about the deal.
Sharif has maintained he had no wish for revenge and only wished for the people’s well-being. He has avoided his rhetoric about civilian supremacy and insisted he was forgiving all those who harmed him. Sharif seemingly appears to be making the most of the military’s apparent determination to prevent whatever is left of the party of his bete noire Imran Khan from winning the 2024 election. Sharif has played ball as he seeks to overturn his convictions and electoral ban.
The military appears to be banking on businessman-politician Sharif’s pragmaticism to fix Pakistan’s economy as the country faces inflation, joblessness, and balance-of-payments crisis. Sharif’s career seems to have come full circle decades after military ruler Zia-ul-Haq handpicked him at 31 as a minister in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab.
Sharif rose to first become the Punjab chief minister and then the prime minister thrice. He emerged as a bitter critic of the military’s role in politics after he was ousted from power for the second time in 1999. The military has invariably been able to play a zero-sum game. It now seemingly has managed to have Sharif by its side as it seeks to finish Khan’s political career after he posed perhaps the most-stiff challenge to the military’s domination as Pakistan’s most popular leader in decades.
A Pashtun from Punjab, Khan draws his support from among Pakistan’s two major ethnic groups—Pashtuns and Punjabis—which have been the mainstay of the country’s powerful army.
Flash In The Pan
Imran Khan briefly tapped into public resentment over his removal and the handing over of power to two families—the Sharifs and the Bhuttos—which have ruled the country since the late 1980s despite serious corruption charges. The use of intimidation against him initially appeared to have backfired.
Tens of thousands of Imran Khan’s supporters took to the streets after his ouster demanding fresh elections. Khan’s PTI was Pakistan’s only national party until the crackdown on it triggered an exodus of leaders from it. It was in power in two of Pakistan’s four provinces and as many territories, accounting for over 75% of the country’s population. Khan’s approval rating was as high as 60% and he still arguably remains Pakistan’s most popular leader.
Khan led a march on Islamabad last year demanding snap polls after holding rallies across Pakistan and sweeping by-polls after his ouster in April 2022. He doubled down on his criticism of the military for allegedly plotting his removal. Khan’s opponents earlier maintained the military, which has ruled Pakistan for over 30 of the 75 years of its existence, played a key role in bringing Khan to power before dumping him.
The Familiar Pattern
Khan’s falling out with the military followed a pattern since the 1960s when military ruler Ayub Khan handpicked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his foreign minister at 35 in 1963. Bhutto revolted against his mentor just two years later for ‘failing to capitalize on the gains in the 1965 war and losing it with India at the negotiation table.’
Bhutto formed the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and emerged as the country’s most popular leader. He also joined a movement against Ayub Khan. The movement brought together parties and groups of all hues and crippled the country and forced Ayub Khan to step down in March 1969. The PPP would emerge as the dominant player in the following decade.
As Bhutto sought to consolidate his power, he tried to play it safe by picking Zia-ul-Haq as the army chief, superseding seven officers. Zia appeared to fit the bill. He did not come from any of the so-called British-designated ‘martial races’ such as Pashtuns, Rajputs, and Jats, which have been the mainstay of the Pakistan army.
Zia’s four predecessors were Pathuns and a Punjabi Rajput from Pothwar, where a bulk of Pakistani soldiers have traditionally been recruited. He was a refugee from India from the ‘non-martial’ farming Arian community. Bhutto ended up burning his fingers by promoting Zia, who deposed him in 1977. Bhutto was executed two years later following a questionable trial on trumped-up charges.
Bhutto chose Zia despite his lack of experience in active combat, which virtually left him with no chance of getting the top army job. Known as the least ambitious general, Zia made Bhutto believe he was a harmless refugee with no base of his own to mount a coup.
History Repeats Itself
Zia mentored Nawaz Sharif in the 1980s and helped his meteoric rise. Run-ins with the military would cut short Sharif’s first term as prime minister in 1993. Sharif forced army chief Jehangir Karamat to quit after prevailing shortly during his second term.
Sharif repeated Bhutto’s mistake of making Pervez Musharraf, who was also a refugee from India, the army chief superseding two officers for similar reasons that led to Zia’s elevation. The move backfired. Musharraf overthrew and jailed Sharif, who was later sentenced to death before opting for exile.
Sharif returned to power in 2013 and appointed Qamar Javed Bajwa as the army chief in November 2016, superseding four officers. Sharif would again rue his choice and accuse Bajwa of pressuring the judiciary to convict and disqualify him in 2017.
Pakistan came full circle when Imran Khan blamed Bajwa for his removal and for installing Shehbaz Sharif as the prime minister with the backing of almost all major political parties. The parties in Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government included the PPP, whose leader Benazir Bhutto was a bitter rival of the Sharifs. While Benazir Bhutto was putting up a struggle against Zia, the Sharifs were the military ruler’s closest allies.
Benazir Bhutto’s widower, former President Asif Ali Zardari, played a key role in forging the alliance against Imran Khan in 2022. He earlier played the ball and ensured the PPP government completed its term in 2013 following Musharraf’s removal and a dent in the army’s popularity after another spell of military rule.
The military has since strengthened its hold, making appointments of the army chief the most critical decision in Pakistan. Such appointments may be routine processes that often go unnoticed in most countries but they are literally a matter of life and death in Pakistan.
Khan’s vow last year to rejoin a march on Islamabad despite a failed assassination attempt was also part of his attempt to prevent Shehbaz Sharif from picking Bajwa’s successor. Khan maintained the new army chief’s appointment would not be done on merit.
The Pakistan army would later claim Khan offered Bajwa a lifetime extension when the ex-prime minister faced a non-confidence motion. Khan was reportedly wary of Asim Munir, Bajwa’s successor, getting the top army job and sought to ensure he did not get it. He is also believed to have pushed for Faiz Hameed’s continuation as the spy agency Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) head amid speculation that he wanted him to subsequently become the army chief. This is believed to have been among the reasons for Khan’s falling out with the army.
Khan fleetingly emerged as a serious challenger to the Pakistan army’s domination until he was shown who’s boss. The domination is deep-rooted and has its roots in the 1857 revolt against the British colonialists. Until 1857, most soldiers were drawn from the so-called upper-caste Hindu communities of what are now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states in eastern and northern India. They were the mainstay of the revolt while Punjabi and Gurkha soldiers remained loyal to the British.
The British preferred soldiers from what they designated as ‘martial races’ of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the modern-day Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after the revolt.
With the NWFP and much of Punjab becoming a part of Pakistan in 1947, the newly carved nation out of the Indian subcontinent ended up receiving one-third of the British Indian armed forces. It was by far the biggest share of resources Pakistan got from British India.
India’s armed forces still were twice as big as Pakistan’s in 1947, making security the key concern of the newly-created country’s founding fathers. Pakistan’s founders feared an existential threat from India and would allocate as much as 75% of their first budget in 1948 for defence.
The size and resources allocated to the Pakistan army helped it emerge as the strongest institution while the political leadership was weakened by the back-to-back losses of founding fathers—Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan.
Pakistan’s civilian leadership floundered in the face of the leadership vacuum. The constitution of the nascent country could only be finalized almost a decade after its creation in 1956 as a weak political leadership ended up entrenching the Pakistan army in politics. Imran Khan seemed to have precipitated the worst crisis for it since a lawyers’ movement forced Musharraf out of power.
ISI also suddenly faced a flurry of cases after Musharraf’s removal. In Parliament, Opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan likened the military to a ‘mafia’. Jamaat-e-Islami would table proposed legislation to clip the ISI’s wings and curtail its powers to detain people.
In October 2012, the Supreme Court ordered criminal proceedings against former army chief General Aslam Beg and Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, the then ISI chief, for rigging the 1990 election. Durrani confessed to spending millions to influence the election to bring Nawaz Sharif to power at Beg’s behest.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ironically established ISI’s political wing and entrenched its meddling in politics in the 1970s. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned out to be a godsend opportunity for the demoralized agency and the military establishment following Pakistan’s demoralising dismemberment in 1971.
The US and other global powers pumped billions of dollars into the anti-Soviet Afghan war in the 1980s as ISI was chosen to funnel weapons and money into Afghanistan. The war gave the agency autonomy, and a financial base boosting its power within the military and the state.
The Afghan War helped ISI become an embodiment of the military’s supremacy. It was now no longer just restricted to covert operations. The ISI’s responsibilities extended to domestic security, foreign policy, and politics. Imran Khan threatened to take the fight against the military’s outsized role to the finish on the back of his political capital until it proved insufficient and the military prevailed again. Khan was convicted of improper disclosure of selling state gifts and was disqualified from contesting the elections.
Pakistan’s military has through behind-the-scenes meddling in politics since Musharraf’s removal created a political order or what has been described as a hybrid regime. As long as Imran Khan played ball, the regime seemed to be working fine. Efforts to unify the opposition suddenly gathered steam and Khan was ousted through a vote of no-confidence when he sought to assert himself in what the military considers its domain.
Khan appeared to have crossed the red line when he attempted to discredit the army chief Asim Munir as beholden to Sharif’s party. The attempt coupled with rumors that some in the military were siding with Khan proceeded his arrest on May 9, 2023. PTI activists and supporters responded by attacking military installations across the country. Khan was accused of conspiracy to trigger a revolt within the military.
Munir has since consolidated his control and sought to hold PTI accountable for the May 9 violence. He has reasserted the military’s upper hand in policy matters underlining hybrid politics was alive and kicking. The military will retain its control no matter who wins the next poll even as Pakistan has been under the longest civilian governance in its history since Musharraf stepped down 15 years ago.
Musharraf’s successors have since managed control of national security decision-making, important foreign ties, and the military budget. Imran Khan ceded further space by making Bajwa a member of the government’s National Development Council, which was formed in 2019 for accelerated economic growth. He in return got Bajwa to freeze the military’s budget for the first time in view of the tanking economy. Khan was in the scheme of things until he stepped out of line and lost the favour of those who matter.
Thrice-bitten Nawaz Sharif does not appear to be shying away from going down that road, which has repeatedly prevented democracy from taking root. It again underlines the shortsightedness of Pakistan’s politicians for whom power has remained the only end whatever the means may be.