Will Attempts To Label Nawaz Sharif An ‘Indian Agent’ Succeed?
1950s and 1960s were a period of rise of anti-communist feelings and witch hunt against domestic communists in American society. In this period, Richard Nixon emerged as a star or hero of anti-communist campaigners. Later when he became the president, he went on to extend a hand of friendship to communist China and finally visited Beijing, a new term was coined in American political jargon, “Nixon goes to China” or “Nixon China syndrome”, which indicated that only a staunch and diehard anti-communist like Nixon could go to China and form an alliance out of real politick reasons or logic. Nixon was perceived in American society to be so deeply anti-communist that nobody objected to his political move to make friends with a communist power when the real politick logic dictated so.
Only two politicians and statesmen in Pakistani history have attained the status so deeply akin to the status enjoyed by Richards Nixon in American society and have faced situations where the idiom or term “Nixon China Syndrome” could be applied. First politician or statesman was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and he faced the “Nixon goes to China” situation when he went to Indian city of Shimla to sign an accord that concluded the 1971 war between two South Asian rivals. Nobody accused him of selling his soul (even if some of them did, nobody listened) when he signed the Accord that converted Ceasefire Line into Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and made Kashmir strictly a bilateral issue—depriving Pakistan of all diplomatic opportunities to internationalize the conflict.
Bhutto had a political career, which was deeply immersed in anti-Indian rhetoric and advocacy of hawkish attitude towards India during his stint in power. He was so deeply perceived to be anti-India that when he boarded the plane to go to India for signing the Shimla Agreement, the leader of fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami and staunchly anti-Bhutto, Mian Tufail Muhammad was there at the airport to see him off.
The second politician or statesman that faced the “Nixon Goes to China” situation was none other than former Nawaz Sharif. He is even luckier than Bhutto when it comes to his anti-India credentials. Foreign Policy is not his forte and much of his career is deeply immersed in domestic political wrangling and confrontations. Still he enjoys the support of a constituency in Punjab, which is deeply anti-India—the backbone of his support base in Central Punjab is Punjabi middle classes and lower middle classes. The period between 1988—the year his military mentor, Zia-ul-Haq died in a plane crash—and 1996 witnessed his verbosity in anti-India rhetoric in his public speeches and statements. His “Nixon goes to China” moments started sometime in early months of 1997 when he embarked on an election campaign and in the process vowed that the first thing he would do after coming to power would be to normalize relations with India. Nawaz Sharif secured two third majority in the lower house of the parliament, reducing the religious right to the status of non-entity, the religious right which opposed his move to offer olive branch to India.
Within two years of coming to power the backchannel diplomacy initiated by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif bore fruit when the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bahari Vajpayee visited Lahore in February 1999 on a historic bus trip. Lahore Summit resulted in resumption of structured talks between the two countries. Religious right was again out to destroy the diplomatic move and the military did its best to sabotage the event. None of this stuff worked. And Nawaz Sharif’s popularity didn’t take a dip.
When Bhutto was implicated in a fake murder case by military government and was put behind bars, the Zia regime bogusly tried to malign his name by concocting fairy tales about his connections with India and Hindus. The military government wanted to prove that Bhutto had secret links with India. For this they stoop too low. The campaign against Nawaz Sharif was even more vicious after he was ousted from power in July 2017. The campaign to portray Nawaz Sharif in secret league with India in fact started in August 2014 when a high profile social media propaganda campaign was launched against him to accuse him of having business interests in India, working secretly with Indian Raw against Pakistani military, and for being running a soft foreign policy towards India. When he was ousted from power in 2017 the social media campaign reported that Pakistani intelligence Agencies have arrested two RAW agents from Sharif family’s sugar mill. No evidence was produced and nobody asked later but the perpetrators were sure the campaign would damage Nawaz Sharif in central Punjab—his stronghold.
Now the other day Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a television interview that intelligence agencies have reported to him about Nawaz Sharif’s secret meetings with some people in England, “We know whom he has been meeting” he said in a cryptic manner to support his accusation that Nawaz Sharif was a traitor, however without mentioning names or identifying whom he has been meeting. Social media, however, has been full of accusations that Nawaz Sharif has been meeting RAW officials and Indian military officials in London.
Irony is that the full throttle campaign to prove Nawaz Sharif a traitor or an Indian agent in the past has hardly produced the required results for Pakistani establishment. Before July 2018 parliamentary elections the establishment and its associated groups on social media applied full force to prove that Nawaz Sharif had been serving Indian interests in Pakistan. And yet Nawaz Sharif’s party emerged as a majority party in Punjab’s provincial assembly. Remember Punjab is the province where anti-India feelings are the strongest.
At the practical level, this would mean that Pakistan’s establishment’s project to label Nawaz Sharif as “Indian Agent” has so far been a failure. The people of Central Punjab—the stronghold of Nawaz Sharif’s party— have refused to accept the message coming out of the power corridors. The periphery is already up to the neck with this kind of useless propaganda. It seems nobody, except the narrow base of Pakistani state machinery and their financially dependent groups, is ready to consume the propaganda against popular leaders. In the case of Nawaz Sharif, Nixon has not only gone to China, he has come back unscathed.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.