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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

What Nawaz Sharif's return means for Pakistan

September 10, 2007

Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to end his seven-year exile as a wandering minstrel of democracy and go home has set the cat among the pigeons. Sharif has chosen the path of 'strategic defiance' of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf [Images]. It is now make-or-break time for Musharraf. His 'deal' with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto [Images], threatens to unravel even before it becomes operational. Equally, the efficacy of the American blueprint for Pakistan's democratic transformation becomes doubtful.

What are Sharif's calculations? To be sure, neither the United States nor Britain could moderate Sharif's uncompromising stance against Musharraf. Sharif insists Musharraf must quit office. The mediatory missions by the Saudi Arabian and Lebanese ruling families have also proved futile.

Sharif is drawing strength from the realization that his sustained campaign against army rule has caught the imagination of the average Pakistani. A sure sign is that the perennial timeservers in Pakistani politics, the powerful Chaudhry clan ruling Punjab these past five years, have begun contacting Sharif in recent weeks seeking political accommodation. They have an uncanny knack for knowing which way the political wind is blowing. As many as 21 members of parliament belonging to the ruling party may have sent out 'feelers' to Sharif.

Musharraf and the Pakistan Muslim League that supports him have different takes on the 'deal' with Bhutto. Musharraf innately distrusts Bhutto. The army views her with distaste. She carries no clout with the Lahore [Images] establishment. She may well prove a burden that Musharraf can do without. But he has no choice in the matter as this 'deal' is what Washington wants.

The PML prefers the post-2002 alliance with the religious parties to continue. But Musharraf cannot countenance an open alliance with religious parties as that would mar his reformist image in Western capitals. Besides, Sharif is forging an alliance with some of the Islamic parties.

Musharraf sees Sharif as opportunistic, authoritarian, dangerously maneuvering, and incessantly plotting to extend his influence. There is no na�vet� about Musharraf. He knows he faces a crisis if there is a popular uprising. And Sharif is a skilful agitator, especially in the heartland province of Punjab, which accounts for 56 percent of Pakistan's population, and happens to be his political base.

Sharif introduces fluidity into the situation for Bhutto as well. She faces dissent within her Pakistan People's Party over the 'deal.' The dissidents regard the 'deal' to be a sell-out of PPP's ideology and principles. This raises question marks about the feasibility of the constitutional amendment that Musharraf seeks to ensure that his re-election as president is not reviewed in a court of law. An amendment requires two-thirds support of 229 votes in the 342-member parliament. The ruling coalition, its allies and Bhutto's PPP en bloc could mobilize 255 members of parliament.

But it is a close call, given the likelihood of defection to Sharif's camp by members of the ruling coalition. As many as 15 MPs belonging to the ruling party may abstain from voting. And these are early days. Sharif has carefully timed his return. He senses it is time to strike.

Sharif calculates that given the prevailing popular mood in Pakistan, he has a readymade anti-American, anti-Musharraf platform. He intends to call the general's bluff threatening to detain him. Once his juggernaut gets going from Punjab, it will become unstoppable. Sharif counts on the supreme court to ensure that a level playing field is available at the next general elections.

He doesn't think Musharraf any longer has the option of imposing emergency rule, as the courts will frustrate such a move. The only exit route for Musharraf will then be declaring martial law. But that is uncharted territory. No previous military dictator in Pakistan dared to take that route. Both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan walked away rather than ask troops to crush popular opposition.

Sharif, therefore, expects Musharraf to cave in and call an all-party conference for discussing the modalities of constituting an interim caretaker government pending elections. Given the public opinion and an increasingly assertive judiciary, this outcome no longer seems implausible.

The irony is that there are several reasons why Sharif ought to have been Washington's man in Islamabad. Sharif can handle the menagerie of Islamists. His political pedigree dates back to the Zia-ul Haq era, and he knows best how to squeeze the jihadi culture out of Pakistan. Second, for the average Pakistani, Sharif is a 'desi neta'; he has gained in stature as a nationalist. That helps him leave behind the legacy of his misrule. Bhutto, on the other hand, is tarnished politically by her 'deal' with Musharraf as well as her proximity to the Americans.

She is yet to realise that her aura in Pakistan is turning out to be very different from her aura in America or Britain. Sharif is also genuinely pro-market and is friendly to large capital. He has taken care not to be branded as 'pro-American,' but he isn't reflexively opposed to American interests either. For him, modernization is something independent of 'Americanisation.' Indeed, despite his conservative rhetoric, Sharif has a proven record as a pragmatist.

Yet, if Washington has opted for Bhutto, the considerations were obvious. Sharif will refuse to be a participant in America's 'war on terror.' He understands America is the primary issue in Pakistan. He has sized up that the public expects him to be the marker of the beginning for Pakistan's 'post-American era,' no matter what his own gut instincts tell him. Least of all, Sharif's experience with Washington during his last term as prime minister was far from happy.

In other words, Sharif is good for globalisation, but can be a liability for the 'war on terror.' He may be good for Pakistan, but will be an unreliable ally for the present US administration with such weighty agenda toward Iran and Afghanistan. On balance, Washington decided to play safe. Bhutto, in comparison, will never create a faus pax for American interests. Besides, Sharif happens to be locked in a fierce blood feud with Musharraf. From Washington's perspective, Musharraf's continuance in power is non-negotiable. The bar of democracy shall be lowered to that end.

But no matter what Washington prescribed for Pakistan, the genie of democracy has leapt out of the bottle. Musharraf's re-election looks fanciful. There may be no other way of saving the regime except by imposing harsh emergency rule or even martial law.

M K Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador, headed the Pakistan Division at the Ministry of External Affairs in the early 1990s.

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