“Mein iss sawal ka jawab dena zuroori nahi samajhta, (I don’t think it’s necessary to answer this question),” then IJI leader Nawaz Sharif snapped in response to my question of whether the newly formed alliance to stop Benazir Bhutto’s PPP ahead of the November 1988 elections was the handiwork of ISI and Lt-Gen Hamid Gul.
I vividly recall that afternoon at Jamaat-i-Islami naib amir Prof Ghafoor Ahmad’s Karachi residence in the run-up to the polls after a plane crash killed the dictator Gen Ziaul Haq and several of his close associates.
Given that Mr Sharif’s entire political career till then had been shaped by one general or the other it was not an unreasonable question which was based on news reports at the time. But it irked the young leader from Punjab and, as he answered, the colour started to rise in his cheeks.
That was then. Today, the thrice-elected former prime minister is fighting a battle with multiple life-threatening illnesses — difficult to say in what measure due to the pathetic treatment and political vendetta he was subjected to in prison. The man handpicked by the military strongman as a key potential civilian partner in the early 1980s now seems to have become the bane of the existence of the very forces that once proudly co-opted him as the civilian facade of the era.
Nawaz Sharif’s nearly 40-year political career comprises many phases. He and his family owed a debt to Gen Zia who returned to them their nationalised iron and steel works, the Ittefaq Foundry, and propelled him into politics.
A man who tried to assert civilian supremacy is fighting an uphill battle for his life.
All through the 1980s and early 1990s, the enterprising Sharifs amassed wealth — not clear how much on account of the patronage extended by the military but enough; that is where some of their present woes may well be rooted. Of course, it was not an issue while they were onside.
For those who play ball, as the Chaudhries of Gujrat have, it is never an issue. Does anyone even remember the cooperatives scandal in Punjab where the entire life’s savings of hundreds of thousands of poor peasants were wiped out, and who was the major beneficiary? The favourites have long been patronised via plots and permits, via well-timed and perfectly tweaked SROs, and last but not the least via loans given and written off by nationalised banks. It was the cornerstone of Zia’s partyless politics. (Musharraf was no different once he acquired ambitions of being a semi-civilian leader.)
The game continued in the late 1980s to 1999 with a civilian leader ie Nawaz Sharif, siding with the military or its nominee the president, to move the PPP out of the way. In its stints in office the PPP tried to pay back in the same coin. Political vendettas became the order of the day as power changed hands between the two.
Post-1997 polls, Sharif seemed to have got the notion he could well be the real deal and attempted to accumulate all powers in his own person and proclaim himself ‘amirul momineen’. His attempt was made easy by a PPP that was so tainted by corruption charges that it was down and out.
But he miscalculated and was overthrown by Gen Musharraf. Sharif was imprisoned, sentenced and then exiled. Belonging to a tightly knit family, where the patriarch called the shots, and losing his father and not being able to attend his funeral was perhaps a big shock.
This is where he seems to have come of age and signed the Charter of Democracy with Benazir Bhutto to obviate past follies. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a bomb attack in 2007, he rushed to the Rawalpindi hospital where the PPP leader was taken in a futile attempt to save her life. The archrival and nemesis through the 1980s and 1990s was now mourning with, and consoling, PPP jiyalas on that cold December evening. He appeared shattered, as the colour drained from his face. Many jiyalas clung to him and cried on his shoulder.
Where his last stint in power that ended in 1999 was marked by his attempts to place all powers in his own hands and treat political opponents with contempt, when he became prime minister in 2013 he appeared a new man. He readily handed over the KP government to the PTI, the largest single party there, when his own PML-N could have formed a coalition and, like the PPP, let the media operate with freedom as it should in democratic societies.
But his party’s rejection of the PPP suggestion to curtail the wide, sweeping, almost unaccountable, powers given to the National Accountability Bureau continues to haunt him and his immediate family as it does other politicians of his party and PPP leaders. Even then, it would be naïve to assume other means were not there to hound the opposition. Once a politician, even if a former prime minister three times over or president, steps out of line with the powers that be their days are numbered.
It would also be naïve to believe that a seasoned civilian politician can be beaten in instinct and foresight by even powerful wannabes. In October 2016, anticipating the challenges that were going to stare Pakistan in the face, Sharif called a meeting with the army and ISI chief.
The meeting was briefed by Foreign Office experts on our growing isolation due to the country’s support to militant groups. The prime minister directed the officials present to deal with the situation as top priority but when the news appeared in the media all hell broke loose. A visibly upset establishment took it as an affront; what followed is a matter of record but nobody is willing to acknowledge they got it wrong even with the FATF blacklisting threat hanging over our heads.
A man who tried to assert civilian supremacy is fighting an uphill battle for his life. One can only wish him health and a speedy recovery. It is earnestly hoped that the rulers begin to realise the ramifications of giving Punjab its own Bhutto.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2019