Mar 27, 2009

Nawaz Sharif on the rise -- again

Reality check
Shafqat Mahmood
Nawaz Sharif has traversed a long journey in Pakistani politics. His beginnings are well known. Nurtured and promoted by Ziaul haq, he was a favourite child of the then establishment. Thrust at a young age into a leadership role as chief minister Punjab in 1985, he did not particularly distinguish himself. But, this quickly began to change when he managed to reach the highest office in the land. His first tenure as prime minister (November 1990 to April 93) saw an opening up of the economy that had been stymied by large-scale nationalization during the Bhutto years and inactivity during the Zia period. Supported by a powerful economic team led by Sartaj Aziz, he moved aggressively forward on liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation. It was then for example that two banks, Muslim Commercial and Allied, were privatised.But as has become typical in Pakistani politics, he was less successful in handling his relations with the opposition and with the most powerful institution in the country, the army. The first to fall out with him was army chief Mirza Aslam Beg, who clearly wanted to create circumstances for a military takeover. This is not so clear about the next army commander, the late General Asif Nawaz, but there is little doubt that he was not enamoured of Mr Sharif.Neither was the opposition. His style was divisive and often arbitrary. He instituted criminal cases against the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Benazir Bhutto, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari. He came down hard on dissent, arresting thousands of people when the word, long march, was used for the first time for an opposition gathering in Islamabad. This helped to consolidate an alliance of the president, the army, and the PPP against him. Although General Asif Nawaz died before it came to fruition, the essential equation did not change.The most critical period of Nawaz Sharif's journey as a politician came when it became clear to him that the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, was getting ready to sack him. Instead of trying to mend fences, he went on television to denounce him. This lost him the government but turned him into a popular leader. The people of Pakistan intrinsically distrust the establishment and stand by whoever takes it on. This has happened now with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and it happened then with Nawaz Sharif in 1993.His years in the opposition were difficult, with his father unceremoniously arrested, and other humiliations like the protective barriers around his house bulldozed. But, he worked hard politically, touring the country and building up support. He also did his bit to widen differences between the then president, Farooq Leghari, and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The dismissal of the PPP government by the president in November 1996 and the subsequent elections gave him the opportunity to win and return as prime minister with a two-thirds majority.Nawaz Sharif's second tenure (February 97 to October 99) was tumultuous. Seared by the previous dismissal of his government, he seemed preoccupied by protecting his tenure in office. He passed constitutional amendments to reclaim powers denied for years to the prime minister and removed the president's ability to dissolve parliament. Having protected himself thus, he passed a floor-crossing amendment to ensure that no revolt against him in the National Assembly could succeed.When he felt that the chief justice of the country was out to get him, he ignored a mobbing of the Supreme Court by his supporters and ultimately benefited from a revolt within the judiciary to unseat him. He also took a hard stance when then army commander General Jehangir Karamat seemed to publicly suggest a formal role for the military in governance. When confronted by him, the general offered to resign which was accepted by the prime minister.The two highlights of his second tenure were his decision to detonate a nuclear device when India did the same. This had serious economic consequences but perhaps gave Pakistan a shield and ultimate security against the conventional military strength of India. But, he also initiated with Prime Minister Vajpayee a peace process that promised much until it was destroyed by the ill-fated Kargil operation launched by the military commander, General Musharraf.Kargil also led to his downfall. Musharraf, worried that the prime minister and perhaps even the army will hold him responsible for the debacle, started to plot Sharif's downfall. The prime minister tried to pre-empt this by sacking him. This gave the general the excuse to overthrow him and impose military rule on Pakistan. And thus began the most difficult period in Nawaz Sharif's political journey.Opinion is divided on whether or not he should have taken the option of going in exile to Saudi Arabia. Reports are that even within his family there was a disagreement. But, there is little doubt that he and his brother Shahbaz Sharif faced the incarceration and humiliations visited upon them by Musharraf, with dignity and honour.It is also obvious that an important change came in Nawaz Sharif's thinking during the years of exile. His frequent interviews and statements of this period reflect a strong belief that Pakistan's future rests on civilian supremacy and strong democratic institutions. Another constant strain is the absolute necessity of political forces working together towards this end.It was not a surprise then that he teamed up with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and the PPP to enshrine these beliefs in a document described as a Charter of Democracy. This also explains his consistent opposition to the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry by General Musharraf and his unflinching support for the restoration of the real judiciary of Pakistan dismissed by him on November 3, 2007. This commitment to what he described as politics of principles was not easy because after the February 18 election, he reluctantly left the coalition in the centre -- and gave up a share of power -- when Mr Zardari refused to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf. This brought his alliance with the PPP under severe strain and ultimately led months later to the removal of the Shahbaz Sharif-led PML-N government in Punjab.The lawyers' movement and its brave and committed leaders, Aitzaz Ahsan, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Munir Malik, Justice Tariq Mahmood, Athar Minallah and many others are heroes of the civil society movement to restore the chief justice and the real judiciary of Pakistan. But, there is little doubt that without the unflinching support of Nawaz Sharif and the political pressure he was able to generate, this victory may not have been possible.Nawaz Sharif's brave coming out of his residence on March 15 to lead the long march to Islamabad, ignoring the numerous threats to his life, will go down as a seminal event in the history of democracy in this country. Today, he stands tall on the political landscape as the most popular leader in the country. His stature is now being recognised even by the sceptical governments of the west who were reluctant to deal with him because they thought he was soft on religious extremism. It is Nawaz Sharif's challenge now to continue on the trajectory of principled politics or get tempted by compromises of power. Only time will tell whether he passes this test.

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