It was always a given. Nawaz Sharif simply had to return to his country or become history, as pointed out earlier in this column. After all, he’s done it before; first being expelled by a sitting president on corruption charges, and then being exiled to Saudi Arabia by a military leader. He thinks he’s got the process down pat. This time around it could be rather unpleasantly different.
First, the military establishment has made no effort to hide the fact that it will do everything to prevent a triumphant return of the prime minister. “Triumphant’ in this case means large crowds turning up at the airport to greet Sharif and his daughter, both of whom are going to be arrested anyway. (They have already been arrested as this copy is being published). This is all about the visuals. The ‘courageous’ leader of his party returning to lead from the front, and unafraid of his certain detention and possible other unpleasant consequences. As of the time of writing, major leaders of the party like Saad Rafique, his brother and five other party loyalists were arrested to prevent them from addressing crowds and creating the mass support that is so vital.
More significantly, more than 400 party workers have been detained in Punjab, though it seems they may be released under orders of the high court. Party workers are the lifeblood of any protest, and their detention may work towards actually galvanising the protests rather than the reverse. Posters of the party have been removed across the city, but more seriously, the inevitable media coverage is likely to be blacked out. Recent attempts to gag GeoTV and Dawn news are indicators of the extent the establishment will go. A block of social media can also be expected. None of this will matter provided the ranks of the party are solidly behind Nawaz. That support, however, has been lowering for some time.
Remember that when Sharif returned from exile earlier in 2007, the crowds surrounding him were not half of what was expected. His ‘roadshow’ after his recent dismissal from the post of prime minister also left much to be desired. This time around, the party may find it even more difficult. Yet, the reality is that this is a moment of ‘do or die’ for the party.
Despite divisions at the very top, savvy political leaders are aware that Shahbaz Sharif is unlikely to be a crowd puller – particularly given his last few public appearances. A lot more money will be spent to ensure that crowds gather, but unless these are not just massive but consistent over the next few weeks, they will fail to provide the ‘pressure’ required on the establishment.
That Nawaz has chosen to return together with his daughter shows that the family has some certainty of being able to challenge the sentence of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). As the redoubtable Dawn has pointed out, the former prime minister does have the option of surrendering before a court, instead of the police. He has the inherent right to challenge the verdict, who may then decide to suspend the sentence if – and only if – there is sufficient grounds to prove that the NAB’s decision is based on flimsy grounds. As noted earlier, the courts have not been able to prove that the Sharifs bought the Avenfield properties in London through the use of illegal assets. What has been established is that the Sharifs could not prove the source of their assets. But the clinching clause — that these assets were gained by misuse of his role as a public servant – has not been even remotely proven. The very fact that Nawaz was expelled from his post of prime minister on the flimsiest of grounds – that of having a work permit of a foreign country – itself shows that there is room for questioning the verdict. However, that will take time, and a long drawn out trial.
That option will not work for the ex-prime minister. He has to hit the ground running. He may seek bail, and probably be granted it. However getting bail alone is not enough.
Remember that the ruling of April 2018 — which was supported by all five judges — bars him not just from holding office, but also from contesting elections. Nawaz needs a court to set aside the verdict, pending further investigations.
There is then the question of whom else Nawaz can depend on. Almost every single Pakistani leader has had to turn to foreign sources for assistance in either returning to their country, or to keep their office intact. Remember that Nawaz had to run to Washington after the Kargil misadventure, and that his eventual return from exile was mediated by the Saudis. The then quasi military government of General Pervez Musharraf was in no position to refuse the king his request, and was also in need of a ‘democratic exercise’. This time, the military is playing it smart. It is officially nowhere in the picture. All the arrests, gagging of the media etc. are being done by a legitimate caretaker government that has every right to ensure that elections – now barely ten days away – are held peacefully and without anarchy. China has now superseded everyone else as the main influence (though not aid giver) of the country, and Beijing doesn’t care whether Nawaz or anyone else is on the chair. The US still remains a major source of aid, but President Donald Trump’s reaction or non reaction) is unpredictable. Other actors like the United Kingdom – who have sheltered Sharifs and others like the portly and unstable Altaf Hussain – will be equally happy with an Imran Khan in the chair. Moreover, London will be loath to take on a (front) government that seems to determinedly set on preventing a Nawaz return.
Finally, there is another side to this dramatic return. Nawaz is not returning just to lead the party. He is preparing the ground for his daughter Maryam Nawaz. A term in jail is almost a basic qualification for a future leader of Pakistan. The fact that se seems to have forged a document — which was rather cleverly found out by the JIT — will work heavily against her.
But in the end it’s the sentiment that will count even in a court. Remember that the apex court had given her the benefit of doubt in April 2017. It could happen again. This is political Bollywood drama at its best, or worst depending on which side you’re rooting for.
And one thing is assured. There are likely to be more sequels to this, than any Hollywood or Bollywood producer can ever think of. As they say, the jobs not over till the paper work is done. And there are a couple of several thousand reams of paper here – in calibri font or otherwise.