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Is Nawaz Sharif a Ravan?

October 19, 2016 08:47 IST

'Nawaz Sharif knows a coup in 2016-2017 will not only complete Pakistan's isolation, but even a whiff of instability will frighten the world into imagining another Islamic State-zone, and this in a fully nuclearised subcontinent,' says Shekhar Gupta.

The Shiv Sena poster

The Indian Army strikes fired the imagination of calendar artistes assigned to make celebratory Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena hoardings in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.

That the most lurid of these had a Ramayana theme is understandable in the Ramlila season. It had Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Lord Ram, with bow and arrow aimed at his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif as Ravana, 10-heads and all. I shall let the first pass. Followers are entitled to see in their leaders as the personification of God.

It is the second, that I have an argument with. Not so much in terms of whether Pakistan is an evil empire like ancient Lanka or not, but on facts.

Ravana was the unquestioned dictator of his empire, Sharif is far from that.

Ravana was the supreme commander of his armies and their foremost warrior, Sharif doesn't even know if his army chief would retire on the due date.

In the current scenario, it is reckless to underline redeeming features in any Pakistani leader, soldier or even film actor. Our prime minister has already given us his view on his counterpart ('those who read from scripts written by terrorists...') in Kozhikode.

Sharif has further elevated himself in our demonology with his latest statements, including at the UN and his national assembly.

But what about his key rivals? Imran Khan has only just delayed declaring war on India. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been ranting -- since his campaign speeches in the recent PoK elections -- in a manner only a Bhutto can rant when in the mood.

Like his grandfather and mother, he hasn't threatened a 1,000-year war on India -- unless I missed something in spite of the close track I keep of Pakistani media.

But his war cry is of the order of shrillness some of us remember from his late mother in the fraught, war-like summer -- who threatened, in that infamous Muzaffarabad speech, to chop Jagmohan, then J&K governor, into pieces: 'Jagmohan ko hum jag-jag-mo-mo-han-han kar denge...' with her right hand making chopping motions on the left.

Ever since democracy 'returned' to Pakistan post-Zia-ul Haq, there is a pattern to elected leaders becoming belligerent with India.

At a point early in the term, the prime minister makes friendly moves, usually with a visit one way or the other.

Note the Benazir Bhutto-Rajiv Gandhi summit in Islamabad, December 1988; Nawaz Sharif-Atal Bihari Vajpayee bus ride and Lahore Declaration, 1999; Benazir Bhuto's likely return to power on a conciliatory note towards India; Asif Ali Zardari's grand gesture offering to send the Inter Services Intelligence chief to Delhi after 26/11 and his National Security Advisor Major General Mehmud Ali Durrani's brave admission that the attackers were Pakistani.

Each was followed by one of the following consequences: Sacking (Benazir Bhutto, 1990), sacking, prison and exile (Nawaz Sharif, 1999), assassination (Benazir Bhutto, 2007), marginalisation (Zardari) and sacking (Durrani as NSA after 26/11). This is a simple pattern: A straight line.

We would have to be daft to imagine some such calamity not falling on Sharif's head after he hosted Modi on his birthday.

Gurdaspur and Pathankot followed and as he responded by acting against Jaish, ordering an inquiry, it was time to up the game in the Kashmir valley.

The warnings were there even early on in his tenure. Enthused by his full majority, riding a wave of popularity following his campaign against dictator Pervez Musharraf and sagacity in cooperating with Asif Ali Zardari to let his elected government complete its full term -- a first in Pakistan's history -- he thought he had the mandate to bring about fundamental changes in his country's polity.

This necessitated that he first put his army firmly in its place. He and his more brash younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, had won the big mandate without a hostile word on India or Kashmir, but promising jobs, growth, electricity and urban mass transit.

He thought he had his opportunity now, appointed a hand-picked, professional Punjabi army chief from a lineage of the country's most celebrated 1965 and 1971 war heroes.

In that enthusiasm he moved to prosecute Musharraf for treason. There wasn't much affection left for Musharraf among his people or the army, or anywhere except among his Facebook followers. But institutionally, this was unacceptable to the army.

It forced Sharif to let Musharraf go away and rejoin his lucrative paid speaking and television interview circuit.

The plotters of the soft coup also used two other instruments against him: Recently defeated and bitter Imran Khan and the shady, rent-a-dharna Canadian-Pakistani cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri.

Both laid siege to Islamabad's equivalent of our Raisina Hill, and didn't move until the army 'appealed' to them.

The diminishing of Sharif was written in his powerlessness.

In those messy months, the massacre of the army officers' children in Peshawar took place, rallying the entire nation behind the army and its chief.

The army's Zarb-e-Azb offensive against militants found popular support and nobody complained as the elected government was cut out of the loop.

Completing its marginalisation was the army's near autonomous assault on Altaf Hussain's Mohajir Quami Movement and its armed mafias in Karachi.

Remarkably, this is Sharif's third term as prime minister. The earlier two were cut short by the army.

In the third, he is dealing with a different challenge: Being diminished while in power, a kind of titular prime minister.

Having followed his politics closely since 1985, I do not believe he wants to just fold down and endure another three years of humiliation. Something will have to give in months, if not weeks, to come.

That's why I won't cynically toss aside Cyril Almeida's report in Dawn, claiming the Sharif brothers have told the army that their current approach on patronising snakes in the backyard (India and Afghan-specific groups) while squashing those in the front yard (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan) is unsustainable.

Today the country has a lone, loyal backer in China. Even the Islamic world is tired of it. China will find it embarrassing to keep vetoing to protect someone as globally undesirable as Masood Azhar, a terrorist freed in exchange for a hijacked Indian airliner.

Sharif could be thrown out easily in 1993 and 1999. He knows a coup in 2016-2017, though possible, is very unlikely. It will not only complete Pakistan's isolation, but even a whiff of instability will frighten the world -- including the Arab States, Iran and China -- into imagining another Islamic State-zone, and this in a fully nuclearised subcontinent.

It's most unlikely that China will then proceed with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Reassured by this thought, Sharif can play the game until General Raheel Sharif's retirement date. America has no appetite left for military rule now. That's why some of what Dawn claims he and his brother said to their army sounds plausible.

In all his conversations with me, the most profound and memorable line he spoke was when President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, backed by the army, sacked him in 1993. 'What kind of a system is it?' he asked using a deep Punjabi metaphor, 'Adhha tittar, addha bateyr (half a partridge, half a quail).'

He promised to fix this in his second innings, but landed with Kargil, jail and exile.

Knowing him, he will try a third time. That is why we should see him as a leader fighting back, with his back to the wall.

He is far, far from being the all-powerful Ravana or personification of all evil. He is a work in progress.

Shekhar Gupta
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