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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 31 New Delhi July 21, 2018

Too Harsh a Judgment?

Saturday 21 July 2018, by Kuldip Nayar

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has sentenced twice popularly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for 10 years in prison. The general remarks about the verdict is that it is too harsh. Nawaz Sharif, who heard about the judgment in London, has said that he would return to Pakistan. However, sources close to the rulers say that he would be arrested as soon as he lands in the country.

Once again it seems that the confrontation between the civilian rulers and the military is building up. Perhaps, the Army did not like the way in which the people were beginning to assert themselves. Nawaz Sharif obviously did not want to be a tool in the hands of those who vote for the khaki. The Army appears to have assessed that Nawaz Sharif’s return to power would pose a challenge to its authority.

Nawaz Sharif has so much wealth at his command that he would have paid even a bigger fine. The Supreme Court was in a quandary. On the one hand, it did not want to provoke the Army and, on the other, it wanted to do justice to Nawaz Sharif. Therefore, it awarded the maximum punishment it could while remaining within the contours of law.

I met Nawaz Sharif at his luxurious flat in the heart of London. The opulence did not surprise me because many leaders from the subcontinent have a flat in England. The 150 years’ rule by the British had ingrained in their heart that London represented luxury and power.

Nawaz Sharif had invited me for breakfast. But the table laid had the best of non-vegetarian dishes. His family had several factories in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise to me that his wife and daughter have a flat each in London. As far as Sharif is concerned, no charge has been made against him. He himself has underlined this point.

It is difficult to ascertain the veracity of the allegation. When the Army has the last word in the country, every allegation has to be taken with a pinch of salt. True, the judiciary in Pakistan has been independent but it has to avoid any situation that may appear to be a challenge to the Army. It looks that despite all pressures and threats, the death sentence given to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was opposed by two judges. They left the country surreptitiously because they feared their elimination.

Nawaz Sharif does not want to run away from the adverse judgment. He has said that he would return to Pakistan and face imprisonment. The elected leaders have to pay this price to stay popular. Otherwise, it would seem that they do not care for the Supreme Court if it gives a verdict against them.

There was a time when people in Pakistan came on to the streets to defend their democratic system from the onslaught by the military which wanted a role in the affairs of the country. Today, the same people want the military to come to their rescue, whatever is left of the democratic structure in their country.

This was visibly seen when the popularly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met the Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, to request the latter to assist him. Nawaz Sharif thought that he could get away quietly with a civilian Prime Minister seeking military help. But the Army had issued an official press release to state that the Prime Minister made the request which the Army Chief did not accept. The Army’s explanation was that traditionally its role in a democratic set-up was to defend the country, not to run it.

In fact, the ousted Prime Minister had brought this misery upon himself. His mis-governance had alienated the people. They wanted him and his brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, to quit and hold mid-term polls. Instead, Nawaz Sharif had a resolution passed by Parliament to back him. It did not help the situation because both of his opponents, Imran Khan of Tehreek-i-Insaaf and Qadiri of Pakistan Awam-i-Tehreek (PAT), represented the civilian parties.

Some leaders opposed to Nawaz Sharif had demanded a mid-term poll. Their thinking was that the people must once again decide whether they want Nawaz Sharif or someone else should run the government. Not long ago, Nawaz Sharif had been pulled down by the Army from prime ministership. His call on the Army Chief then to intervene was a full turnabout. But he did not realise that the Army would have no hesitation in staging a coup as and when it felt or whenever the situation demanded. That was the reason why Nawaz Sharif brought in parliamentary democracy in his statements to underline that the role of the Army could, at best, be only temporary.

I met Nawaz Sharif, then the Chief Minister, for the first time in Delhi after partition. It took him no time to tell me that I was from Sialkot. He said that the way in which I spoke Punjabi had a distinctive flavour, a kind of accent, which was confined to the Sialkotis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif at Lahore should have opened a new chapter. Both countries would have fostered not only friendship but taken steps to benefit the region economically. There should have been trade between the two across the border instead of using Dubai as the place for import and export of capital goods.

Modi’s statement after the visit that such an occurrence would be common and they would be coming and going to each other’s country without any protocol is what should have been done earlier. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was a visionary who could think of it. Modi appeared to follow him because soon after his return from Lahore the first thing he did was to call on Vajpayee, representing the liberal face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The latter is incapacitated but did say by gestures that what Modi did was something which he would have himself done. Modi’s rule should have reflected that spirit.

Instead, Nawaz Sharif faces a 10-year imprisonment. People would want some concrete evidence to see that Nawaz Sharif and his family had indulged in corrupt practices.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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