Die is cast

Die is cast
Nawaz Sharif has crossed the Rubicon and proclaimed the loudest whispers in the land. He says the ISI is “a state above the state”, the NAB Chairman is victimizing the opposition, the Election Commission of Pakistan rigged the 2018 elections, judges high and low have succumbed to threats and blackmail; FIA, SECP, and other government agencies are abusing their powers.

Some people say this is a suicidal move. Others contend it’s a do or die situation because Mr Sharif was unfairly ousted from office and dragged to prison, leaving him with no option but to stand up and fight for his life. Many believe that, whether he succeeds or not in winning back some political space for his party and himself personally, this is a historic moment in the political evolution of Pakistan because the elephant in the room has finally been identified for being part of the problem rather than its solution.

The opposition parties in the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) have announced plans to agitate for the removal of the PTI government, which has reacted predictably by arresting Shahbaz Sharif and is poised to swoop down on Maryam Nawaz and other leaders. But with Nawaz Sharif constantly thundering on the media from the safety of London and Maulana Fazal ur Rahman flexing his million-man muscle, the stage is set for political instability and uncertainty. With the economy in the dumps, the IMF packing its bags, Narendra Modi breathing fire and venom on our eastern border and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan increasingly foraying into FATA, this doesn’t augur well for Pakistan.

Much of this developing scenario is not new to Pakistanis. Elected governments are periodically and unfairly ousted, elections are more often rigged than fair, and long marches and movements for the restoration of democracy are par for the course. What is dramatically new is the discrediting of the Miltablishment as the “baddest” player on the block. Since the sacred cow has been the most powerful anchor of the national consensus for the last seventy years of Independent Pakistan, this is nothing less than a hard blow to National Power. Unfortunately, a nagging suspicion that a civil-military coterie has defamed a national institution for opportunist reasons has made matters more controversial, prompting ex-Miltablishment voices to raise the alarm. The perverse irony is that when unaccountable state institutions and their unelected bosses are unmasked, the elected “corrupt” politicians they hunt begin to recoup their lost legitimacy and relevance.

The Miltablishment leaders have only themselves to blame for degrading the ubiquitous mystique and power of the sacred cow. It all started some years ago with brazen official Tweets and “Dawn Leaks” criticizing PMLN government policies. It has now degenerated into Sheikh Rashid exposing secret meetings between opposition politicians and brass bosses, quite forgetting that it takes two to tango. Matters have deteriorated since official spokesmen jumped into the fray, provoking tagged politicians to defend themselves by revealing hitherto veiled conversations, promises and grudges. Everybody is in the same “hammam”, their dirty linen is on scorching display, there are no sacred cows anymore.

Self-righteous PTI spokesmen are condemning Nawaz Sharif for breaking his pledge to return to Pakistan. The Miltablishment is sending carrot and stick messages to him. Their loyal followers in the media are taunting him to return to Pakistan and fight like a man. His supporters say that the judges and government sent him away; the Miltablishment has reneged on its promises to him; now there’s nothing left for him but to encash the loyalty and support of tens of millions of his voters who passionately believe that he has been wronged. Why then shouldn’t he exploit the safety of exile to reach out to his supporters as so many political leaders have successfully done in history?

Of course, it will be difficult for the PDM to mount a forceful movement to oust Imran Khan because all state organs are arrayed behind him. It is also clear that there are weak personal, political and organizational links in its chain of command based on distrust and differing vested interests. But Nawaz Sharif’s alliance with Maulana Fazal ur Rahman cannot be shrugged away. Indeed, the Maulana has been far more outspoken against the Miltablishment than even Nawaz Sharif. In fact the JUI has the capacity to single handedly shut down major towns across the country. And if it cannot be cowed down, the demonstration effect of its resistance is bound to galvanize leaderless parties and swell the ranks of agitators. Clashes are inevitable with unforeseen consequences, unless the threat of it stops it from coming true.

In the coming months, the Miltablishment can either open up political space or close it further. In the past, when it has opted for closure through direct intervention, it has been propped up by dollops of American economic and military support, backed by Saudi Arabia. That is not going to happen now. To hope China can fill the vacuum is wishful thinking. The die is cast.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.