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Nawaz Sharif unseated by Supreme Court: Army notches up another victory in Pakistan

Pakistan's Supreme Court sends Panamagate graft case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to anti-corruption court for trial Photograph: (DNA)

Delhi, India Jul 31, 2017, 06.49 AM (IST) Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

On Friday last, Nawaz Sharif, the third term prime minister of Pakistan, was ejected from office, by a landmark judgment of the country’s Supreme Court [SC]. With this development, Pakistan has burnished its notorious reputation of ousting all serving PMs in its 70 years of existence and reinforcing a palpable sense of déjà vu. Earlier Pakistani PMs were ousted by Governors-General, military coups or no-confidence motions in 1958 and 1977. The military dictator Zia-ul Huq even hanged a PM – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The last elected PM before Sharif, Yousuf Raza Gilani, of the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP], was also ejected from office by the SC in 2012. Following the verdict, Sharif resigned as PM and the Cabinet also stood dissolved. It is not clear whether Sharif can appeal this decision.

No Pakistani PM has served a full 5-year term in office and Nawaz Sharif is the latest addition to this list.
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Already marked out internationally as the global hub of terrorism, the judicial coup against Sharif, is another blow to Pakistan’s tattered image as a faltering democracy. During half of its existence, Pakistan has been under the jackboots of its powerful and imperious Army. No Pakistani PM has served a full 5-year term in office and Nawaz Sharif is the latest addition to this list. He has been on this list before. His earlier two stints in office were also rudely cut short, the last one in 1999, by General Pervez Musharaf’s military coup. 

After months of hearings and investigation in the so-called “Panamagate” affair, the five-member SC bench delivered a unanimous verdict indicting Sharif and his close family members for corruption, His two sons and daughter have also been implicated. The SC’s verdict disqualified Sharif from holding the office of PM. The verdict is based on a technicality. The SC judged him to have violated Articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s Constitution. These two provisions require all MPs to be truthful and righteous, conditions introduced by past military dictators ostensibly to keep legislators on a leash and manipulate and blackmail them when needed. 

The fact that the political class in Pakistan has a reputation for being highly corrupt has strengthened the hands of the Army which has projected itself as the final bastion of the State – defender of its security and ideology.
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These two provisions have been a useful tool in hands of the powerful military establishment or the “deep state” to control politicians in Pakistan. The fact that the political class in Pakistan has a reputation for being highly corrupt has strengthened the hands of the Army which has projected itself as the final bastion of the State – defender of its security and ideology. The Army’s corrupt Generals and officers go scot free. The Core Commanders of the Army in Pakistan are derisively called “crore commanders” by the people of Pakistan. The Judiciary in Pakistan has mostly toed the Army’s line and has justified military coups on the dubious legal principle of “doctrine of necessity”.

The SC-appointed Joint Investigation Committee [JIT] in which 2 Brigadiers from the Military Intelligence and the ISI were inducted as members, produced a damning report, documenting corruption charges against Sharif, concealing facts, submitting forged documents, money laundering and illegal acquisition of properties abroad.
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The SC has directed the National Accountability Court [NAC] to file criminal charges for money laundering and other related acts of criminality. If convicted by the NAC, the Sharifs will be banned for life from standing for election and holding political office. The SC has ordered cases to be filed against all of them within six weeks. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has also been directed by the SC to de-notify the prime minister from his National Assembly seat to fulfil the technicalities of implementing the order. The SC directed the ECP to disqualify Sharif for not disclosing his role in the Dubai-based Capital FZE Company in his nomination papers, saying that this meant he was not 'honest' and 'truthful'. The SC-appointed Joint Investigation Committee [JIT] in which 2 Brigadiers from the Military Intelligence and the ISI were inducted as members, produced a damning report, documenting corruption charges against Sharif, concealing facts, submitting forged documents, money laundering and illegal acquisition of properties abroad. 

The Panama papers had named many international leaders, businessmen and officials and Nawaz Sharif is the second victim, apart from the PM of Iceland. The latter resigned when the Panama papers were made public in 2015. Nawaz Sharif’s name did not figure in the Panama papers but names of both his sons and the daughter figured in the documents. His daughter Mariam is Sharif’s political heir. This is the third time that Nawaz Sharif has been rudely shoved aside from office. The last time he had to go into exile following a Saudi-brokered deal with dictator Musharraf. Sharif spent 10 years in exile in Saudi Arabia before returning to Pakistan.

The Army has used a more sophisticated method of toppling Sharif via a judicial coup. The old fashioned direct military coup is no longer on the menu.
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Though expected, the SC decision has caused a political upheaval in Pakistan, a fragile democracy by any reckoning. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [PML-N], Nawaz Sharif’s political party has a comfortable majority in Parliament. Hence, the PML-N will have to elect a new PM and have him/her confirmed by the Parliament. As long as the PML-N can decide on the new candidate the party’s majority in Parliament will ensure the confirmation of the PM-nominee.

The other option would be to call fresh elections, a demand that will be pressed by Opposition parties. New elections are not due till August 2018. Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother and CM of Punjab has been named to succeed PM. Shahbaz is far less charismatic than his brother but has been CM thrice of Pakistan’s most populous and influential Punjab province. Meanwhile, a close confidante and businessman, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a senior leader of the PML-N and former Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources, has been named as interim PM. Shehbaz has to be elected to the National Parliament before he can assume charge as PM. Abbasi is expected to keep the chair warm for him.

While the Army has denied any conspiracy, it does take a leap of imagination to absolve the military establishment and the “deep state” of culpability. Relations between Sharif and the Army nosedived after media leaks of a bruising meeting wherein civilian officials warned Army officials of Pakistan’s increasing global isolation because of the Army’s policies on using terrorism as an instrument of State policy. The tussle of control over foreign policy, particularly towards India and Afghanistan has continued for quite some time. Sharif’s inclination to normalise relations with India, his apparent friendship with PM Modi and criticism of the Army’s support for jihadi militants, must have upset the Army whose fundamental belief of eternal hostility towards India and use of jihadi proxies was being questioned. 

This led to a long drawn out tussle with the Army extracting its pound of flesh in the form of the sacking of officials involved in the media leak. Singed by the media leaks, the Army, in all probability, crossed the Rubicon and decided to bring down Sharif. The Army has used a more sophisticated method of toppling Sharif via a judicial coup. The old fashioned direct military coup is no longer on the menu. The Sharif family has no doubt acquired massive wealth and is perhaps not innocent of some of the charges. The case against them, however, is far from proven. Hence, the lingering suspicion that Sharif’s ouster was a well-organised conspiracy by the Army.

Instability in Pakistan and the Army’s overpowering role in politics, policy making and support to jihadi terrorism have severely damaged relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India and caused a huge setback to regional cooperation efforts in SAARC.
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The Sharif episode is part of a long political saga and is a cause for concern for all. Instability in Pakistan and the Army’s overpowering role in politics, policy making and support to jihadi terrorism have severely damaged relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India and caused a huge setback to regional cooperation efforts in SAARC. As history repeats itself in Pakistan, India can only wait and watch this domestic power struggle play out with the Army again. 

One fallout in India has been demands for transparency in investigation into the 500 odd Indian names, including those of many BJP-friendly famous personalities who were named in the Panama papers. Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has to defend the Indian government’s stand on this issue in the media. In so far as terrorism is concerned, India can expect no change. Even as the Pakistan Opposition parties like the PPP and cricketer-turned-politician or Imran Khan’s PTI celebrate Sharif’s fall, Opposition leaders too have skeletons in their cupboard and could meet the same fate as Sharif. Pakistan is caught in a bind with no escape route from the binary Civilian-Military struggle for power.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty is former member of the Indian Foreign Service. He was Consul-General of India in Karachi.

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