Politicians might govern the country after a fashion, but the Army lives by its own rules and is above reproach.
So another Prime Minister of Pakistan has been knocked off his pedestal, this time through a court order instead of the Army. So what is new?
Behind Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by the Supreme Court to hold office lies 70 years of Pakistan’s turbulent history following the early death of its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the interplay between political forces and the Army. Periods of straightforward military rule have been interspersed with bouts of civilian dispensations, with politicians and the military settling down to a grudging and uneasy equation. Politicians might govern the country after a fashion, but the Army lives by its own rules and is above reproach.
True to form, Mr Sharif was not allowed to complete his term this time as well. But there was an irony in the court decision goaded by the Opposition leader Imran Khan of Tehreek-i-Insaf party. The leak of the Prime Minister’s alleged wealth through the Panama Papers caught the entire political establishment by surprise but his hoarding of unaccounted wealth is not the sin of Mr Sharif alone; it is the norm for politicians of all parties.
The turmoil in Pakistani politics, with Mr Sharif nominating his 65-year-old younger brother Shehbaz, governor of the key Punjab province, with a stand-in until he wins a parliamentary seat, is in accordance with the hallowed sub-continental tradition. In foreign policy, of most concern to India and the world, the former Prime Minister is expected to be the backseat driver, but it is easy to envisage the Army reiterating its veto on India, Afghanistan and the stewardship of the country’s nuclear armour.
In recent decades, Pakistan’s policymakers have developed the art of presenting different faces to the world while harbouring terrorist organisations or encouraging cross-border raids. For long, these activities were ignored by Washington, but US Afghan policy was too dependent on Islamabad to call the latter to account.
American policy has been changing, as evidenced by the reference to cross-border raids in the joint statement with Mr Modi during his Washington visit and the new explicit clause introduced in the US Senate linking military aid with action against terrorist groups. One of the immediate tasks of Mr Sharif’s successors will be to convince US President Donald Trump that Islamabad is actually undertaking to clean up its act on harbouring terrorists is a tall order.
In the event, the stalemate in relations with India will continue until the new civilian dispensation can resolve its domestic problems. An anti-India stance is the safest position to adopt for aspiring politicians in Pakistan. But it is in relation to China that we might see nuances of change. Mr Sharif gave his whole-hearted support to China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) policy, particularly to the key Chinese-Pakistani economic agreement that passes through disputed Kashmir underpinnig it.
This economic corridor amounting to many billions of dollars of Chinese investment according to Chinese priorities and with Chinese labour is mouth-watering but full of hidden traps in Balochistan in particular where a hostile rebellious population will be further marginalised by seizure of their land and the influx of hordes of foreign workers and officials virtually running their province.
Mr Imran Khan’s party, identified in popular mind with Army sponsorship, is of course delighted with the elder Mr Sharif’s dethronement but still seems a long way to acquiring power.
The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has a solid majority in Parliament and in immediate terms it seems a formality that petroleum minister Shahid Khalaqan Abbasi will serve his interim term until Sharif junior takes over. But every twist in this Pakistani melodrama has new possibilities of realignments.
Mr Nawaz Sharif and his children will be subjected to further legal proceedings, which promise to be a long process. Witness General Musharraf facing a string of charges not only living a normal life but pronouncing on matters of state policy nearly every day as if he were still the country’s military ruler. The Supreme Court’s verdict subjects Mr Sharif and family to a stiff round of investigations but the outcome of these probes, as and when they take place, is far from clear.
The basic Pakistani dilemma remains unresolved. India might be the enemy for the Army and influence over Afghanistan would remain its other main goal, but the new centrality of China in the country’s affairs introduces an unpredictable factor. Chinese ambitions, which go far beyond Pakistan, are likely to proceed ahead of Islamabad’s priorities and could represent new points of friction.
There was a time when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto galvanised the country and gave it a new cachet. The then Army establishment saw to it that he was not merely imprisoned but hanged.
His daughter Benazir, whom I had also met and interviewed during her term as Prime Minister, sought to recreate her father’s music but assassins were waiting for her to snuff out her life.
Mr Nawaz Sharif was more matter of fact in his style and sought to work within the limits of what the Army would allow. Now that he has been felled by an unlikely blow, he must hope that his younger brother will carry on his cautious approach to rule within the red lines drawn by the Army.
However, Pakistan’s perennial question of who rules the country remains unresolved. The thread that unites the country, from General Ayub Khan to now, the Army’s hold has not loosened. Perhaps the Supreme Court verdict on Mr Sharif is a sign of change. It is still a long journey ahead.
For the better or worse, the sub-continent’s bitter division still casts a long shadow over relations between the two countries. We are very similar in many ways but have gone in very different directions. Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking to mould his country into a Hindu India in imitation of Pakistan’s Islamisation, will find a meeting point with his colleagues across the border.