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Nawaz Sharif Is Back With A Bang But He Faces Formidable Odds

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“I will not resign, I will not dissolve the assembly and I will not accept dictation,” said a battle-hardened Nawaz Sharif on national TV as Prime Minister on the 17th of April 1993. His 29-minute speech sealed the fate of the then 44-year-old PM’s government which had luckily managed to complete 2 and a half years in power. After months of political tussles between President Ghulam Ishaq Khan (a quintessential figure of the establishment) and Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, a settlement was underway, guaranteed by Chief of Army Staff General Abdul Waheed Kakar. Nawaz Sharif wanted the President’s powers to dissolve all assemblies for himself and resented the appointment of General Kakar by the President against his wishes. The fight between Nawaz Sharif and President Ghulam Ishaq had reached new heights during April of 1993 which prompted Nawaz Sharif to give the historic address. General Kakar decided to back President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a 78-year old bureaucrat-politician who had appointed him. The Supreme Court of Pakistan restored Sharif’s government but President Ghulam Ishaq and Gen. Kakar used their power to make Sharif resign. Ghulam Ishaq Khan sent a second elected government packing in a short span of three years. The first was Benazir Bhutto’s in 1990.

Nawaz Sharif’s story is the story of Pakistan’s civil-military institutional tussle and a tug of war over domestic and external decision making. Fast forward to 2020, and after two years of absence from the political scene, the ousted and jailed Prime Minister has broken his silence.

Sharif’s speech did not mince words. There was nothing to read in between the lines. Not much was left to interpretation. That it was blunt and straightforward would be an accurate description. He mentioned the destructive process of establishment’s selection of certain regimes over others. This reflected clarity which the entire opposition had failed to do so collectively in the last 2 years. The elder Sharif voiced anger against journalist abductions and censorship which captured the mood in Pakistan’s civil society. This has sparked energy in a civil society comprising of journalists, lawyers, activists on the left that have barely managed to keep dissent and criticism functional. Nawaz Sharif broke away from the opposition’s cautious tradition by stating that the root cause of Pakistan’s problems was a ‘state above state’ and a ‘parallel government’.

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He argued that Pakistan’s domestic and external policy is in disarray because it does not reflect true aspirations of the democratic vote. Nawaz Sharif has made it abundantly clear that the solution to Pakistan’s problems lies in the organic growth of democratic institutions, where decision making rests with the civilian leaders alone; and not in a bargaining process between various powers as in the past. Perhaps, many of his foreign policy overtures with India in the 90s and early 2010s could have led to more success had it not been for a national security wisdom that informs state policy.

Nawaz Sharif lambasted those who ‘installed’ Imran Khan and claimed that the opposition’s struggle is against Imran Khan’s handlers. The conflation of Imran Khan with his backers elucidates that the fight is against the system that propels favourable candidates to power. In stark contrast with other opposition leaders, Nawaz Sharif named ex-generals (Asim Saleem Bajwa) and former dictators who escape accountability, unlike the politicians.  Perhaps, Nawaz Sharif’s stature allows him to be unafraid in these daunting times and circumstances. The supremo criticised the government’s economic policy, lawlessness and rising unemployment stating that it was a direct consequence of Imran Khan’s installation. Again, this conflation between Khan and his backers is much more serious than any opposition speech before because it blames the underwriters of the system. It directly holds them accountable in the court of public opinion which opposition has avoided in the past.

Despite the fiery, populist narrative by Nawaz Sharif, it is equally crucial not to overstate what the elder Sharif said. The fact remains that the opposition is disunited. Both opposition parties have an unstable support base. While the PPP is struggling to hold on to the rural Sindh vote and keep Zardari out of jail, the PML-N is desperately trying to weave a semblance of coalition with the Chaudrys of Gujarat to consolidate their position in Punjab. The money laundering cases hang above the younger Sharif’s head like a sword and can fall at any point in time. This has increased the family’s proclivity for political bargain with powers-that-be which can undermine an opposition resurgence. However, if Nawaz Sharif has decided to actively participate in politics, this provides a unique opportunity for opposition parties to coalesce around a popular leader for legislative and street readiness. Nawaz Sharif attracts protestors from all over Punjab and other areas while his ability to push through or reject legislation with a loyal band of MNAs is well-known. These are two attributes that the opposition requires to become threatening after facing defeat during the Senate Chairman’s election and FATF bills.

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Few men and women are bestowed with the power and ability to change the course of a nation. But even fewer last long enough to make it happen. In Pakistan, the natural course of a leader fluctuates, not least because of external, intervening factors that are part of our history. Pakistan has lost too many political leaders to murders, prisons and systemic exclusion (Bugti, Bhuttos, Suhrawary, Junejo and so on). Nawaz Sharif now stands at a critical position. The wizened leader has many political and development achievements under his belt, but his biggest challenge lies in the twilight of his career.

Make no mistake about it, Nawaz Sharif is the last man standing against a system that refuses to budge.

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Naya Daur