THE inglorious exit of Nawaz Sharif may have come as a serious blow to the country’s most powerful political dynasty. The devastating ruling by the five-member Supreme Court bench has not only seen the former prime minister disqualified for life but has also indicted almost all the Sharifs who have dominated the country’s political scene for more than three decades, whether in or out of power. But one is not sure if it marks the end of the family’s political legacy. It is evident that the baton of leadership will now be passed on to Shahbaz Sharif, thus maintaining the dynastic hold over power at least for now.
Indeed, the unprecedented judicial action against a sitting prime minister is a watershed moment for the country’s democratic evaluation and has been described as a step forward in efforts towards establishing the rule of law. Notwithstanding the scepticism over the judgement perceived as radical, the action came from within the system and not outside the constitutional framework. It also signifies a milestone in the development of an independent judiciary not subservient to the executive, though the perceived harshness of the ruling can rightly be disputed.
For sure, the ruling appears to have generated an upheaval and a period of political uncertainty — that is bound to happen when any entrenched political dynastic order is shaken. It also appears that the ruling has further deepened political polarisation in the country. But it certainly does not threaten the democratic political process as speculated by Sharif’s supporters.
The judgement is a serious blow to dynastic politics but one is not sure if it is the end.
In fact, it is a serious blow to dynastic politics that has been the biggest impediment to the development of democratic institutions and values in the country. The Panama ruling has also broken the widespread perception that Sharif being a Punjabi leader was untouchable while leaders from Sindh and the other smaller provinces could easily be dispensed with.
So this hue and cry over the fall from grace of Sharif and describing the events as a setback to democracy is beyond comprehension. The case against Sharif went through a whole legal process and cannot be described as part of a conspiracy or a judicial coup.
It became quite apparent that the prime minister was in deep trouble after the JIT report came out with a damning indictment of him and his family. It went beyond the family’s failure to provide a money trail for the London properties and included charges of perjury and non-disclosure of some foreign financial assets. But such extreme action against the entire family and a consensus ruling came as a shock not only to the government but also to those outside.
Indeed, indictment of other family members and sending corruption cases against them to NAB has disrupted the dynasty’s succession plan. While the court ruling against Maryam Sharif was expected after the allegation of forged documents, the inclusion of Shahbaz Sharif in the list was unexpected. That has exacerbated the PML-N’s leadership predicament.
But many in the party appear confident that the junior Sharif can still lead them despite facing charges in NAB. There is a move by the PML-N to play the victimhood card and project the ousted prime minister as a ‘political martyr’. But one is not sure that will work in the present situation. Sharif’s influence over the party has become limited with his moral and political position weakened.
A child of the establishment Nawaz Sharif was politically baptised by Gen Zia’s military government in the early 1980s as part of the plan to prop up an alternative leader to challenge Benazir Bhutto. His trajectory from Punjab chief minister to prime minister in the 1990s owed to the backing of the military and the powerful civil establishment of Punjab. That political power also saw a massive rise in the family’s business fortunes. That financial scandal continued to dog him throughout his political career particularly after his ascent to the country’s top position. It finally caught up with him after the Panama Papers named his family, and caused his downfall.
With his rise to the pinnacle of political power, Nawaz Sharif tried to break away from the influence of the military establishment that also brought him down in his previous terms. The former protйgй turned into the nemesis of the military establishment. It is not surprising that he remained locked in perpetual conflict with the military leadership throughout his third term in office.
Although the Muslim League has historically remained close to the military establishment, Nawaz Sharif tried to transform it into a mass populist party, though he may not have been fully successful in his endeavour. Still, over the years, despite ups and downs, Sharif developed a popular mass base that elected him to a record third term in office. The backing of the powerful Punjabi civil establishment, including the bureaucracy and sections of the judiciary, also appeared to have helped his family’s stranglehold over Punjab.
A big question is whether a disgraced Nawaz Sharif will be able to keep the party united. More importantly, will the Punjab establishment continue to back the PML-N under the younger Sharif’s leadership after the damning indictment of the family? Previously, cracks showed up in adverse situations. The biggest example was the formation of the PML-Q after Musharraf’s coup. Interestingly, many defectors returned to the ranks with a sizeable number on the treasury benches, even in the cabinet. That will be the most serious challenge to the Sharif family. Party unity will also depend on the ability of the PPP and PTI to make inroads in the PML-N stronghold in Punjab that remains the main political battlefield. The other provinces are not affected by Nawaz Sharif’s downfall.
There doesn’t seem much chance of his return to power, but one is not sure if the family rule is over.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2017