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Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan

To predict what will happen when Nawaz Sharif lands back in Pakistan, we need to look at what has happened as a result of the NAB conviction that has awarded prison sentences to him, Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Captain Safdar.

 Opponents of Nawaz Sharif have celebrated the conviction. This was predictable. But at this stage, how much does the gloating of his opponents really matter? The 2013 election saw the people of Pakistan award Sharif the single greatest window of opportunity ever afforded to a Pakistani democrat. Almost everything that has happened since then has involved Sharif voluntarily handing over chunks of the space he was gifted back to his opponents, be they elements within the military and intelligence establishments or their unofficial spokespeople in the national media or Imran Khan and his horde of angry malcontents or, most recently, his critics within the superior judiciary.

The NAB conviction is a moment of climax for this diverse but predictable array of Nawaz Sharif haters. This moment began in April 2016 with something they had little to do with (the Panama Papers), and culminated on July 6, 2018 with the NAB conviction. Short of, God forbid, an actual hanging or assassination, Nawaz Sharif haters have had their day in the sun.

What about Nawaz Sharif lovers? They too are reasonably predictable. The boss has just been GIKd. Again. For the third time. This time, the process has marinated much longer and the institutional mechanisms enacting the beheading are stronger. And the boss himself? He is older and slower. An aching desperation adorns the PML-N. The NAB conviction was anticipated only for the details, not the outcome. The party is torn. On the one hand is the new party president – whose grievance at being denied a chance to graduate from provincial boss to national leader goes back not to July 2017, when Nawaz Sharif was removed from office by the Supreme Court, but all the way back to June 2013 when his elder brother chose to leave him in Lahore, instead of inviting him to be part of his cabinet in Islamabad. On the other hand is the telegenic crown princess – whose sense of entitlement to the throne has been carefully cultivated by her father, and whose conviction by the NAB court maybe the more important cut to the jugular of the N in the PML-N.

The two camps may be at odds with each other but are passionately pro-Nawaz Sharif. So Nawaz Sharif lovers will do what they have thus far: put up a good rhetorical fight, but refuse to fight to the death. The fights to the death are for the Bhuttos and Bugtis and Azeem Ahmed Tariqs of Pakistan. The PML-N is, to its credit, a party whose DNA is about winning – not dying. So when Nawaz Sharif lands in Pakistan, the party will fight – to win, the whole of the National Assembly, or a provincial assembly, or a single National Assembly seat, or a provincial one. Micro or macro, the PML-N’s DNA is winning, not dying. From 1999 to 2013, the N in the PML-N waited for a win. Today, tomorrow, in 2023 or in 2028. Nawaz Sharif lovers will hang on, as long as they are convinced there is a win at the end of this Panama storm.

But the future may not be in the hands of Nawaz Sharif lovers or haters. It is likely to be in the hands of a wider, larger, more important group of people. The same people that were instrumental in handing Nawaz Sharif the keys to the car in 2013, the same people that ensured he survived the 2014 dharna and the same people that are being courted by both anti and pro-Nawaz Sharif narratives. It isn’t the party partisans that have decisive political power. It is the so-called non-partisans, the fence-sitters, the undecideds that make up the majority of the electorate: this is where the predictability begins to stutter a little bit.

The anti-Nawaz Sharif narrative is compelling and potent – corrupt, low energy, old, interested in the 2018 election only because his daughter has been persuaded by two sets of courtiers. The PML-N’s substantial riches of electables have convinced her that she is destined to become a historic people’s prime minister in the mould of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. The substantial oversupply of Lahori intellectuals with faujophobia have convinced her that she is destined to be the one to finally contain the army and put it in the stricter confines of where it belongs: in the barracks (in the mould of nobody, ever. Yet).

The anti-Nawaz Sharif narrative is that it is ridiculous that biological happenstance should generate national stature for Maryam Nawaz Sharif. That a five-year term that began with promises of substantial economic growth and transformation, could not even turn around the one flagship public-sector enterprise that is worth saving: PIA. That the man who claims to want to make peace with India let the 2014 Dastgir-Sharma trade deal with India slip away into oblivion without so much as a whimper. The anti-Nawaz Sharif narrative is that on all the things that Nawaz Sharif says matter the most: Asian Tiger economic growth, civilian control of foreign policy and a normalised, peaceful South Asia – Nawaz Sharif has failed, over and over and over again.

Against this narrative, which is part-organic, part-manufactured, part-true, part-harsh is the pro-Nawaz Sharif narrative. This is the one the Noonies, if they are smart, will deploy to great effect as we approach July 26. This narrative is also potent and compelling – and the people that have Pakistan’s best interests in mind and heart would be well-advised not to ignore it entirely.

Pro-Nawaz Sharif voices may appeal to improved infrastructure, reduced loadshedding, the substantial improvement in the economy and the enhanced geographic, strategic and economic potential of the country. But anti-Nawaz Sharif voices have their own versions of all of these subplots. The pro-Nawaz Sharif narrative may be helped by delivery, but its beating heart isn’t about delivery. It is also not what the Noonie electables and Lahori intellectual faujophobes will have you believe. It is not ‘vote ko izzat do’ nor ‘establishment versus the people’ nor as my dear friend Cyril Almeida often says “Nawaz versus the boys”. The pro-Nawaz Sharif narrative is simple: How fair is all this?

Is it fair that the PML-N is being dismantled through a campaign of intimidation and blackmail? Is it fair that one man and his family’s corruption is haram, but the universally acknowledged corruption of others is halal? Is it fair that Gen Musharraf’s never-ending treatment for spinelessness and his hunt for a backbone continues in Dubai, while the Sharifs are grilled by JITs, disqualified by the Supreme Court and convicted by NAB? Is it fair that journalists are discouraged from making arguments that may seem to favour Nawaz Sharif? Is it fair that the very judiciary that Nawaz Sharif helped free has not only disqualified and convicted him, but may be seen to have some sort of a vendetta against him?

The people of Pakistan are, in the aggregate and above all things, a fair people. Nawaz Sharif may not merit any sympathy at all for his current predicament. But the people of Pakistan will not only be looking at his conduct.

On July 25, Pakistanis will also enter the voting booths having witnessed the conduct of all the other actors in Pakistan’s phenomenal array of politics, public policy and national discourse. Pakistanis can and have forgiven corruption, incompetence and callousness. But they have rarely forgiven blatant unfairness. The most ebullient Nawaz Sharif haters may be his ultimate secret weapon. Pakistanis are fair, and Pakistanis love the underdog. Those that are sincere in wanting to rid this nation of corruption must remember this as Nawaz Sharif descends back onto Pakistani soil this week.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan," The News. 2018-07-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political power , National Assembly , Supreme court , Corruption , Judiciary , Politics , Nawaz Sharif , Imran Khan , Pakistan , PMLN , DNA