KARACHI: Appearance matters a great deal in politics and going by the appearance, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looked to be on top of his game on Wednesday in an informal session with a group of journalists.
He has put on weight, but now exudes more of a well-thought-out innocence than the vacant look that characterised him during the 1990s.
Approaching his 60s, Nawaz Sharif seems like a man who has finally come to know his strengths and weaknesses. Even compared to 2007, when he landed straight into an election after spending seven years outside Pakistan and did not have a handle on many things, including his interaction with the media, he appears to be much more in his elements than he ever has been.
During his interaction with journalists, Sharif appeared relaxed and confident, mixing clarity and ambiguity in his statements to suit his political positions. When asked whether his call for an early election is a demand or a suggestion, he replied: “It is advice.”
And then he sounded like a well-wisher of the government rather than a staunch opponent: “This is the right time to call an election, even for the government. In the next 12-13 months, the situation may deteriorate even further and the PPP may find it even more difficult to go to the voters. It is in [the PPP’s] interest too.”
But why will early elections be a good thing this time when four polls in quick succession (1988, ‘90, ’93 and ’97) ended up destabilising the polity? Sharif’s answer is bland and unimaginative: “If I had been the prime minister, I would have called an early election. There has to be a government that has policies and is able to deliver on them.”
Sharif is seemingly more forthright about the military’s role in politics. “They are still playing that role,” he said when asked whether he thought Imran Khan and his PTI enjoyed the backing, overt or covert, of the military establishment. “But the good thing is that this is being discussed and this discussion won’t stop no matter how hard someone tries to stop it.”
His formula for keeping the military out of politics, he added, was in line with the Charter of Democracy. “We want 100 per cent democracy; the armed forces should remain within their constitutional domain. Parliament should discuss and approve the military budget as well as decide what to cut and what to keep in. A select committee of parliament should oversee the working and the budget of the intelligence agencies, including the ISI.”
When asked about the criticism Sharif and the PML-N have heaped on whatever little the PPP-led government has done to try and bring the military and intelligence agencies under civilian control, he retorted: “Those efforts were clumsy. They put the ISI under (Interior Minister) Rehman Malik and wanted to rein in the military through the Kerry-Lugar law. This will never work.”
Sharif, however, appeared undecided about whether the military — and now increasingly the judiciary — should have a role in the determination of national security and foreign policies or not. “The political forces should sit down for a dialogue and chalk out a vision for the next 20-25 years,” Sharif said, but then added: “Even the armed forces and the judiciary should be part of this dialogue to determine the future course for the country. After all, they are important stakeholders.”
The most scathing criticism is reserved for President Zardari. “We went out of the way to support the government. We offered our unstinting support to the government to use us to get that done,” the PML-N supremo said. “Mr Zardari thinks that he can handle everything and everyone with his cleverer-than-the-rest tactics.”
Equally clear is Sharif’s unflinching support for the superior judiciary. “The Supreme Court has become independent to the extent that it is now issuing notices to the army chief and ISI chief, which is unprecedented.”
Perhaps therein lies a hint about the future course of politics, Sharif’s as well as Pakistan’s.