Analysts are unanimous in noting that Nawaz lowered his attacks on the military that he launched from his London exile two years ago … writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
The return of thrice-prime minister Nawaz Sharif from his self-imposed exile after four years may be part of the plans of the military-civil ‘establishment’ to facilitate his return to power after the elections, analysts watching Pakistan say.
If he does win the elections, the army may retain control of some key parts of the governance – mainly the relations with the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, the nuclear policy and India, the last including the Kashmir dispute.
Nawaz is seen as having purchased his peace with the military that he had defied thrice before – and paid for it by being deposed from power. The fourth tenure, as a report in Dawn newspaper – adroitly credited to an unnamed leader of Nawaz’s party – would be one wherein Nawaz, now 73 and supposedly ailing, would require him to ponder over what kind of political legacy he will leave behind.
The newspaper’s editorial comment on the day Nawaz returned was one of scorn towards the supposed ‘deal’. It said that Nawaz was “on the wrong side of history” in that he was succumbing, yet again, to the might of the ‘establishment’ instead of defying it. This sentiment could be attributed either to the democratic ideals that most Pakistani politicians have sacrificed to the altar of power or to the sentiment that Nawaz is back in favour with the establishment, directly at the expense of his arch-rival, Imran Khan. Khan retains a considerable support base among the middle classes and the intelligentsia.
Analysts are unanimous in noting that Nawaz lowered his attacks on the military that he launched from his London exile two years ago. “Homecoming humbles Nawaz’s stance on the establishment. Contrary to the previous hardline stance of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif against the establishment, the former prime minister has adopted a “neutral policy” to soften his stance on his homecoming, sources revealed to the Express Tribune (October 21, 2023).
In any case, Nawaz’s attacks were political in nature, even if directed against the then-army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa who was supposed to have engineered his ouster and facilitated Khan’s ascendance.
By contrast, Khan was seen as interfering with the army’s internal affairs like transfers and promotions. When ousted from power – even if that was ‘engineered’ by Gen. Bajwa – he launched a diatribe against the military and combined it with attacks on the United States, charging the Biden administration of hatching a ‘conspiracy’. This was more than what Pakistan’s military, among the most significant beneficiaries of American military and financial largess in Asia, could take.
Khan’s worst ‘offence’, however, was his men taking to the streets on May 9 and vandalising key military offices with the hope of polarizing the military top brass against the current army chief, General Asim Munir. Analysts say whether or not Khan ordered or encouraged these attacks as he is accused of, it was a humiliation the military cannot leave unpunished.
This explains Imran Khan being in jail with prospects of being there during the elections or being disqualified from contesting. This is also the time Pakistan is trying to mend its fences with the US that frayed during the months Khan conducted his campaign.
The Biden administration has paid little attention to Pakistan. With Afghanistan on the back-burner, the Biden team, embroiled in Ukraine and now in the Middle East, has little time for Pakistan.
Clear signals are emanating from the ‘establishment’ favouring Nawaz from the way the PPP of the Bhutto-Zardaris, on being ignored, have moved away from Nawaz’s party and are seeking “a level playing field”.
For now, the military has set its target of rehabilitating Nawaz with relief from various corruption cases – Azizia and Avenfield – but also on Toshakhana on which Nawaz faces charges identical to Khan. Nawaz gets relief even as Khan remains in jail on this count. As Dawn observed: “It has never seemed more obvious that neither Mr Sharif’s past conviction nor this sudden relief has much to do with the law.”
This apart, Nawaz used his first public outing in Lahore to send out two signals: that his family is united behind him and that he is not for retribution and revenge, be it the ‘establishment’ or his political rivals. He exuded subdued confidence, media reports said. This could only come from the tacit support of the powers that be.
Not having many options before it, come January elections, the Pakistan Army seems to have opted for a safer bet in Nawaz.