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A silent coup: Nawaz Sharif’s exit & the structural problems of Pak politics

TCA Raghavan | Updated on: 29 July 2017, 14:20 IST
(AFP Photo)

Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification is to be seen in the longer cycle of Pakistan’s history when there has been a civilian dispensation to run the government. If the long periods of military rule have shown remarkable continuity in terms of the top post, the civilian interludes have been marked by sharp discontinuities - in the 1950s, the 1990s and even in the past decade.

Pakistan crossed one milestone in 2013 when the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led government completed its full term (with two prime ministers) and there was smooth transition to another civilian government.

Notwithstanding numerous weaknesses and recurrent crises in this period, this was still a significant achievement for Pakistan.

A second milestone would have been if Nawaz Sharif had completed his full term and stayed on as prime minister till the elections in the first quarter of 2018. He would have been the first prime minister of Pakistan to do so.

That this has not happened is a setback for Pakistan politics.

A deep churning

The pros and cons of the charges and the case that felled Nawaz Sharif are now well known.

Throughout his current term, the civil-military balance also remained unstable. This instability only reflected a deeper churning within Pakistan as the military would not, or could not, concede the additional space that the growing politicisation of Pakistan’s society required.

In 2014, Nawaz Sharif was able to stave off a major challenge represented by the agitational politics of Imran Khan. Even at that time, the military’s hand was visible to most. That Imran Khan, despite this support, was unsuccessful was largely because the rest, or most, of the political class put up a united front.

This time around, the effort was successful because it was mounted through an instrument whose constitutionality is not in doubt. The PPP, with an eye on 2018, stood aside.

This is by no means the first time in Pakistan’s history that the Supreme Court has been successful where others have not.

A sympathy wave for Nawaz Sharif cannot be ruled out to help PML-N win in 2018

But the full details of the crisis of 2014 and the current situation will emerge only slowly. The answer will partly lie in the transition from Generals Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to Raheel Sharif and now from Raheel Sharif to Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Nawaz Sharif’s problems perhaps begin with his treatment of an outgoing chief. In both cases, the end of the respective tenures was scratchy and friction ridden.

The consequence is inevitable in Pakistan thanks to its long history of army influence in the most surprising of places.

The other big change is that the stock of the Pakistan Army has been higher since 2015 than at any time in the past quarter of a century. This is largely the result of the vigour it has shown in battling domestic terrorists – in tribal areas of course, but also in Sindh and Punjab, and in particular in Lahore and Karachi. 

All this tilted the balance away from Nawaz Sharif as surely as the corruption of the political class.

What the future holds

What now? A period of domestic instability is inevitable.

For how long? Imran Khan’s agitational politics carries in it the seeds of the ‘Bangladeshisation’ of Pakistan politics. Whoever loses in the next election now has the power of precedent in his quiver of not accepting the result. We can also expect a closer scrutiny of Imran Khan’s own financial dealings, but even more so of those close to him.

The real issue will be of reactions to Nawaz Sharif’s downfall in this manner. A sympathy wave cannot be ruled out, especially in Punjab and the 2018 election results may yet throw up surprises.

Some see an even greater Chinese advantage with the civilian dispensation greatly weakened. This may not be necessarily the case. Imran Khan’s dharna in Islamabad led to an unprecedented postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in September 2014. The Chinese president visited India then, but could not visit Pakistan: this shows how much agitational politics in Pakistan has its own uncontrollable dynamic. 

In general, political instability is not good for foreign investment and that includes the Chinese.

The India connect

Will these events change affect relations with India?

Domestic instability in Pakistan never portends well for the bilateral relationship. But it is also a fact that Nawaz Sharif’s exit sees the closure of the innings of another charismatic politician who tried hard to improve relations with India.

Benazir Bhutto’s biography is an even grimmer one. His past, in the 1980s and early 1990s, on support to Khalistani or Kashmiri terrorists cannot be forgotten but the fact is that he also changed with, in some ways, a changing Pakistan.

The Nawaz of the Lahore bus initiative and he who courageously attended the swearing in of the present government in New Delhi is someone who did try and try hard to bring about some minimum stability in what is and has been a fundamentally unstable relationship.

That the elections of 1997, 2008 and 2013 in Pakistan and especially in Punjab did not see high intensity rhetoric against India owes something to his role also. 

That these efforts did not succeed has much to do with the structural problems of Pakistan’s politics and Nawaz Sharif’s exit in this manner means that these have only grown in magnitude.

TCA Raghavan has served as Indian High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan. He is the author of Attendant Lords - Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim: Poet and Courtier in Mughal India. His next book, The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan will be released next month.

First published: 29 July 2017, 14:20 IST