The former Pakistan PM’s recent interview to Dawn is part of this narrative-building
Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems to have decided that he isn’t going to go down without a fight, even if it means taking on the all-powerful, military-dominated “establishment”.
With the “deep state” catching Nawaz and his party in a vice-like grip, he needs to break the tightening stranglehold to prevent asphyxiation even before the general elections begin. His only hope of staying alive politically is to ensure that his party, Pakistan Muslim League (N), gets enough votes in the forthcoming polls to emerge as at least the single-largest party.
Even as he is being hounded in the anti-corruption courts, and the anti-corruption watchdog – National Accountability Bureau – is resurrecting long-buried graft allegations, and the military is working overtime to break up his party by engineering defections of “electables”, Nawaz is barn-storming the country to counter the negative narrative being manufactured against him by his detractors.
Rather than answer the allegations against him, Nawaz is working hard to sell the narrative that he was ousted unfairly and unjustly as a result of the conspiracy hatched by the “deep state” or the “state within the state within the state”.
His recent interview to Dawn newspaper, which has created a huge uproar in Pakistan and literally lit a fire in the pants (or more appropriately, shalwars) of the “establishment” and its underlings, is part of this narrative building.
In a remarkable coincidence of interests converging, albeit for completely different reasons, both India and the Pakistani establishment focused on only one part of the interview, which was about the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai.
Nawaz said: “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?”
While Indians jumped up with joy and claimed that a three-time Prime Minister had not just admitted to Pakistan’s role in the terror attacks but also questioned the way the trial of the accused was being deliberately sabotaged, the Pakistani “establishment” flew in fury and accused Nawaz of treason and treachery for pointing the finger at the Pakistani state.
But there were other parts in the interview that were conveniently ignored because at least for the Pakistani “deep state”, they were even more damning than what Nawaz said about 26/11.
According to him, “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one… We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it… These games have gone on too long. Something has to change”.
The newspaper interview continues: “It is a very popular slogan,” he said of ‘mujhe kyun nikala?’ [why was I ousted] and, added with evident satisfaction, “There is a lot of appreciation, a lot of recognition for it.”
Clearly, the interview was a continuation of the political message that Nawaz is delivering to his voters, a message that he has been consistently drilling among his supporters since his political guillotine by the judiciary.
India was at best an unintended beneficiary of the political fight between the “zameeni maqlook” (people) who back Nawaz and the “khalai maqlook” (literally aliens, a term now used by him as a thinly disguised code word for the “deep state”).
It would be a big mistake for anyone in India to even imagine that Nawaz said what he did because his conscience was being pricked by the denial of justice in the 26/11 case. Had that been the case, then as Prime Minister for over four years, Nawaz should have pushed for conclusion of the trial. But he didn’t lift one small finger to bring the planners and perpetrators to justice.
He could have sent the cases to the military courts, but didn’t. If anything, he allowed his brother to start funding the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa from state funds. And it would be nothing short of delusional for anyone in India to think that he is so smitten by India, that he will put his politics at stake for India’s sake.
The simple fact of the matter is that while Nawaz is no Indo-phobe like most of his countrymen and indeed much of his support base, he is also no Indophile. While he might not have railed against India like his other compatriots, he also hasn’t done anything at all to actually improve relations with India. On the contrary, since he came into power, he has been hyperactive in agitating the Kashmir issue at every available forum in the world.
Nawaz only used 26/11 as a metaphor for the larger point he has been making, which is that the interference by the military in the affairs of state and running of the government has ruined Pakistan’s image internationally and isolated it in the international community to a point that no one is ready to buy whatever snake oil Pakistan is selling.
According to Nawaz, even when Pakistan thinks it has a genuine case, there are no buyers – this was the point that was also made in the infamous Dawn Leaks case in October 2016, after which the civil-military relations never really recovered and the military used the Panama Leaks to fix Nawaz through the judiciary.
Alongside, he is also pointing to how the verdict of the people is sabotaged by the “deep state” through the judiciary and other institutions and organs of the state – Nawaz’s ouster being a prime example. The slogan that is now driving the Nawaz election campaign is “vote ko izzat do” [respect the vote].
By speaking against the “parallel governments” that are running (or if you will, ruining) the country, Nawaz is talking about the “state within a state” that undermines constitutional government and prevents democracy from striking roots.
Of course, by taking the military establishment head-on, Nawaz is taking a huge gamble, one in which the dice is heavily loaded against him – no party has ever won consecutive elections in Pakistan, no party has ever won in the face of extreme hostility of the “establishment”, no party has ever won in a political setting where the field is heavily tilted in favour of its political adversaries, and no leader who has been ousted has ever been allowed to come back to power immediately after his/her ouster.
But he has been left with no choice. Although members of his own party are balking at Nawaz’s outspokenness and want to make peace with the “establishment”, he himself remains unrepentant and defiant. Most analysts believe he is behaving like a political suicide bomber who will only destroy himself and his party. But Nawaz thinks otherwise. He is convinced that his defiance of the “deep state” is his ticket out of the political oblivion into which he is being pushed.
What Nawaz is trying to do is something remarkable in Pakistan’s politics. He is trying to combine his traditional conservative support base – if the crowds he is attracting are anything to go by, his core constituency hasn’t deserted him yet – with the sizeable anti-establishment vote which earlier used to go to the PPP, Pakistan People’s Party.
Unlike the PPP which has absolutely no ideological moorings left, Nawaz hasn’t quite given up his right-wing, conservative politics, only shifted a little more to the centre. This has helped him retain – at least so it seems – a substantial chunk of the right-wing vote. His victim narrative has also won him sympathy. Add to this his anti-establishment posturing which still has some traction.
Incidentally, if Nawaz pulls this off, he will end the great paradox of Pakistani politics which was that Nawaz who was the child of the establishment has always confronted it, while the PPP which was seen as an anti-establishment party has never ever gone against the establishment.
In fact, the PPP has been the most obedient and compliant political party when it came to following the wishes and diktats of the “establishment”. Nawaz on the other hand always took on the establishment on the issue of who will call the shots.
In his first term, he was dismissed because he refused to take “dictation” from the quintessential establishment man, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. After his ouster, he exposed a plan hatched by then army chief Aslam Beg and ISI chief Asad Durrani to sell narcotics to fund jihadist adventures around the world.
His second term ended after he took on then army chief Pervez Musharraf. And in his third term, he burnt his bridges with the army when he insisted that he will try Musharraf for treason, and later disagreed on a range of issues with the military. The “deep state” tried various things to destabilise him, including putting its new pet, Imran Khan, on the job to hold a dharna to force Nawaz out.
Of course, Nawaz’s calculations could collapse if the voting takes place purely on the criteria of winnability. In Punjab in particular, people tend to vote for the party/candidate who has the best chance of winning, and by all accounts the political environment that is being created doesn’t leave anything to imagination that the “deep state” will pull out all stops to prevent Nawaz’s party from winning the elections. Add to this the desertions from his party, and it looks like a pretty uphill battle for the ruling party in the next elections.
As far as India is concerned, the Nawaz Sharif interview should serve as a reminder (assuming one was needed) of the powerlessness of the civilian leadership on which so many Indians place so much confidence. To attach any hopes to the next government, whether elected or selected, becoming a partner in peace is not just naïvety of the worst kind but plain insanity and a refusal to learn anything from history or experience.
In other words, regardless of the outcome of elections in Pakistan, it will not change the dynamics of India-Pakistan relations, nor will it make any difference to the control of the “establishment” on the civilian leadership. Even in the unlikely event that Nawaz’s party wins big, it will give priority to its survival than to becoming a partner in peace with India.
About Imran Khan, the less said the better because he will be worse than a puppet if he wins. In any case, as long as the Prime Minister of Pakistan enjoys the powers of the municipal commissioner of Islamabad, it will be quite pointless engaging with the elected civilian government.