Nawaz departs on his own terms

The government was forced to cede ground, writes Murtaza Solangi

Nawaz departs on his own terms

Whether he was in the Prime Minister House, in prison, in a hospital or even his deathbed - Nawaz Sharif wanted to do things his way. On July 6, he was convicted in his absence as his wife Kulsoom Nawaz fell critically ill. With both his sons already established in London, it was a good time to remain there had he wanted to stay away from politics. He had already served as prime minister thrice. He could have stayed where he was and things would have been different in Pakistan today.

But Nawaz thought about it for a week and decided to return with his daughter Maryam Nawaz, the firebrand young lady he had been grooming as his political heir. On July 13, while in transit in Abu Dhabi, he was conveyed a message to turn around and go back to London as he and his daughter would be arrested and this time for a longer term. He didn’t budge. He did not want to disappoint thousands of people in Lahore as he genuinely believed they would receive him at the airport. He also thought his return would embolden his party in the general election.

There were no party workers at the airport, but his defiant return helped his party. Despite the Form 45 and Result Transmission Service (RTS) fiasco, Nawaz’s party emerged as the second biggest largest in the national assembly. In the Punjab, his party was in the position of forming government but the system had been effectively engineered to ensure installation of the PTI.

In his 495-day stay in Pakistan since his return from London, most of it spent in incarceration, Nawaz stayed put and so did his defiant daughter. Maryam pulled a huge scoop on the first anniversary of her sentencing this year, on July 6, when she released explosive videos of Judge Arshad Malik admitting that he had been blackmailed and pressurised by powerful quarters to convict them. Maryam used this as a banner raised in the heartland of the Punjab. She was pulling huge crowds in demonstrations till she was arrested in August.

Both father and daughter have gone through a lot since their return from London. Nawaz lost his wife soon after returning. Both have been in and out of jail. Both have complained of inadequate facilities in jail, especially in NAB’s custody.

This was a major blow to Imran’s administration. Isolated and humiliated, Khan went in to seclusion after he heard the court’s verdict

Things turned ugly for Sharif when he was arrested by NAB officials on October 11 while he was already in Kotlakhphat jail. Sharif’s health began to deteriorate barely 10 days after his detention in NAB’s custody. His condition got so bad, he was sent to Services Hospital on October 21. He had developed a new ailment affecting his immune system. Hussain Nawaz, his elder son, raised an alarm when he said he feared that Sharif had been poisoned. The alarm resonated with many who likened the ailment with Yasir Arafat’s, who was reportedly poisoned by Israel and later died in November 2004.

Nawaz was admitted to the hospital just six days before Maulana Fazalur Rehman started his Azadi March towards Islamabad. Sharif’s condition and the marching protestors put the government in an incredibly awkward position. When diagnostic reports started coming in, fears grew that the former premier could die in custody while thousands of protesters were gathering in the national capital. This was probably the moment that turned the tide.

It is in this context that first, on October 25, Lahore High Court granted bail to Nawaz Sharif in the Ramzan Sugar Mills case. Two days later, on October 27, Islamabad High Court granted Nawaz Sharif’s interim bail and on October 29, Sharif was granted bail on medical grounds with no conditions attached, unlike the Supreme Court bail in March.

Here, a new round of politics began. As Maulana Fazalur Rehman’s march began losing steam, the usual toxic statements by the PTI’s leadership began popping up and political temperatures began rising again. Government leaders started mocking the illness of the former premier without making a clear decision on removing his name from the Exit Control List. Earlier, when news about Sharif’s deteriorating condition broke, many PTI leaders said the government would let him leave the country if the doctors recommended it. Yet, despite clear and unambiguous recommendations by a board of doctors, there came conflicting statements about the government’s intentions.

Eventually, the PTI leadership found an opportunity in this personal tragedy. If Sharif paid billions of rupees in indemnity bonds with a clear commitment to return on a specified date, it would help Imran’s administration tremendously. The PTI would tell its core base and the people of Pakistan that Sharif was guilty, had struck a deal and bought bail with billions to save his skin. If he refused to pay up, the PTI would get an opportunity to attack the PML-N.

Before the PML-N could take a decisive position, government’s coalition partners, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, the GDA of Sindh, MQM and even BAP dissociated themselves from Imran Khan and criticised the conditions put forward by the government.

Meanwhile, Sharif was shifted to an intensive care unit set up at his residence after his release from Services Hospital. He was put on heavy medication to prepare him for air travel as he waited for the government to take off his name from the Exit Control List. He talked very little and was mostly disoriented. Party insiders said he was not his usual self.

Yet, when he heard about the condition of indemnity bonds, he blew his fuse. “Ay naeen karna,” (don’t do this) he clearly and firmly told his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif. Two days later, the PML-N leadership moved the Lahore High Court that deliberated the matter and threw out the government’s conditions. Sharif was let go on a simple undertaking that he would return to the country soon after the doctors declared him treated and fit to return.

This was a major blow to Imran’s administration. Isolated and humiliated, Khan went in to seclusion after he heard the court verdict. Two days later, when he addressed a public event inaugurating a motorway extension, he used it to attack and mimic his political rivals.

He even taunted the judiciary for letting a “convicted criminal” go out of the country. CJP Asif Saeed Khosa responded in kind on Wednesday, and said that it was the prime minister himself who had let Sharif go. The courts had only decided the modalities of his departure. Even worse, the NAB chairman on Tuesday hinted at the arrest of government top guns as the time for their accountability was almost here.

Maulana Fazalur Rehman has gone back but he claims that he got something significant in return. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, the main interlocutor persuading Maulana Fazal to leave Islamabad, agrees with him. As we wait for the second tenure of the army chief to start next week, questions about the future remain. Will the polarization, witch-hunt of political opponents and media gags end soon? Will Imran Khan mend his ways or will he be dumped and replaced by somebody within his party? Whatever happens, the status quo is untenable.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad