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June 12, 2017



A boxed-in Sharif

A boxed-in Sharif

While he spoke of peace at the Heads of the State Council of the SCO summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has little of that at home. Domestically, he has entered a tricky, winding and narrow alley. Serious question marks hang over his political future as circumstances call on him to make decisive judgement calls.

Whether he collapses or copes depends on a mix of factors, including the motivation level of his opponents – both political and non-political – the strength of loyalties within his camp and his personal choices.

The Joint Investigation Team has put all its cards on the table. They, or at least some of them, will proceed with investigations, coupled with calculated media leaks (not just the picture but news leaks as well). They will reinforce their public image of a tough cop holding the prime minister and his family by the scruff of the neck. By making light of the matter of the leak of Hussain Nawaz’s photo, the Supreme Court bench has made it clear that it sees no grave travesty of justice in this breach.

This creates a straitjacket for the prime minister that he cannot cast off without opting out of the investigation process. Even while his ministers and aides have, with considerable aplomb, spread a cloud of controversy over the JIT, the fact remains that as long as the prime minister is committed to the process, he has to abide by the rules of the game – which the JIT controls and the Supreme Court bench endorses. This puts him in two boats that are sailing in opposite directions – one of backing the JIT investigation and the other loaded with his suspicion and growing distrust of the whole process.

This simultaneous ride cannot continue for long. Soon he will have to choose one. If the JIT is to call him to the same investigation room where his son sat, across a cold distance from the seats of investigators, his decision to comply with the summons will be one of the hardest he has taken in his career. There are no guarantees that his videos will not be released, now or later.

The public discussion on Hussain Nawaz’s video grab leak has nailed it partly correctly: it was an attempt to let the media ridicule rain on Nawaz Sharif’s family. But a more important objective has not drawn much attention: it was a feeler, a signal of how the public side of the trial can be turned into a nerve gas attack against the prime minister himself. A repeat of the monkey business of breaking (fake) news that he was talked down by JIT members, can cause his public image to take a nose-dive.

What’s more, the image of him being under siege will be reinforced within his own camp. Government dysfunctionality might go a few notches up. There will be increased fence-sitting by the bureaucracy and other institutions as most will wonder whether it’s wise to comply with the orders of a prime minister teetering on the brink of disappearance.

Opting out of the investigation process is an option, yes, but its costs far outweigh the benefits. The Supreme Court can simply knock him out of office on contempt. Also a no-go strategy would be used by his opponents as the ultimate proof of his culpability. Under the circumstances, his best bet seems to be to continue to cast the JIT in partisan colours and position himself in a way that could allow him to demand a hiatus in the proceedings of the JIT till his doubts are removed. In case he is summoned he could also use some prime ministerial privilege (security, for instance) to either change the location of the JIT investigation or make sure that the Q&A room has the presence of his office and not just of his person.

But all of this only buys him some time off the dial of a clock that is ticking fast – less than a month to go. How much store does the JIT set by his son’s testimonies and documents, and what sort of report they file in the end is in their hands. Or if the Sharif camp assessments are to be taken seriously, in the hands of the JIT handlers. An adverse report that can form the basis of criminal case proceedings will take away the last argument in support of him staying in office. He will have to resign.

What does he do to deal with that possibility of being designated as a money launderer, tax evader, or a liar by a JIT that is now in gun-blazing mood?

There aren’t many cards left in his hand. Traditionally, when politicians in power get into nasty situations they pay homage to the GHQ and dial for help. In the case of the prime minister, the hotline has gone cold already. Nawaz Sharif knows that seeing the back of him will cause the army no agony. At any rate, the Sharif camp itself feels deeply aggrieved – first over the infamous tweet, and now the picture leak whose ultimate answer can only be provided by those who keep the video record (and that is not the civilian authority).

Within the Sharif camp, the ready-to-resign and tell-it-all group has considerable following. Nawaz Sharif himself is inclined that way, even though he does not openly encourage them. Any gesture that smacks of snivelling subservience for political survival is a big no for Sharif loyalists. With the courts already positioned (mafia mantra) and the opposition smacking their lips in anticipation of the Sharif political blood being drawn, the prime minister can turn towards his core group – no?

There lies his inner challenge. It is a divided house. There is little trust between him and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, whose actions have been an enigma wrapped in layers of mysteries. Which side is he on? It is hard to tell, even though everyone tells everyone in the Sharif camp – with eyes rolling – that he remains a loyalist to his own cause.

The younger brother, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his family, is there for him – but just about. The most amazing side of the entire charge of the opposition is how the Sharif family is essentially reduced to Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. Shahbaz Sharif and his sons, whose business are thriving in the heart of Pakistan, remain distant targets that get a dart or two every now and then but have largely remained unhurt in the last four years of bruising battles in Islamabad.

In case Nawaz Sharif is cannibalised politically, the two parts that will survive are Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar, which sets both of them up nicely in national politics in years to come.

What does he do then? The only reliable partner Nawaz Sharif has in this melodrama of his fifth year in power is one that he has treated with utter disregard all this time: the party and its cadres. Here Nawaz Sharif’s name is the only currency that counts (even though one wonders why, considering how the party has been treated since the 2013 elections). He and no one else matters to the MNAs, MPs and Union Council heads. He is to the PML-N what Imran Khan is to the PTI. Can he reconnect with his party, bypassing all the interlocutors that he has outsourced his party to?

His record in this regard is abysmal. He has spurts of enthusiasm and love for the party under duress before relapsing into disinterest. That is partly because he is in a been-there-done-that mood and imagines himself to be above the dust and heat of handling party affairs. He wants to be known as a statesman and not as a politician only.

Yet, as the walls close in on him, the only barrier that he can place between them is not his stature but his party. His politics is what has elevated him this high; his politics is what can hold him as he speeds towards the ground. Can he send an SOS to his party workers on his own? Can he go for early elections after that call? We will soon find out. For now, all we see is a Nawaz Sharif who is boxed in – who complains a lot about his challenges but is unwilling to do anything out of the box to meet them.


The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.


Twitter: @TalatHussain12