Articles,  Gopalaswami Parthasarathy

Troubles for Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan are far from over

Gopalaswami Parthasarathy

Ambassador of India to Myanmar & GCTC Advisory Board Member

 

Pakistan has been in political turmoil ever since it was revealed in Panama Papers last year that Nawaz Sharif’s family had large undeclared financial assets abroad, including large properties in London and Dubai.

Sharif’s defense was that his father, who owned businesses in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, acquired these properties. It soon became clear, however, that the five member-bench, which the Supreme Court set up to look at the charges, was determined to unseat him from office.

Evidence

Unable to find evidence to establish charges of undeclared assets abroad, the five-member bench held him guilty of not declaring a sum due to him from a company in Dubai, even though Sharif clarified that he never received the money, a relatively paltry sum of around $2,700 (over Rs 1,73,000). Incidentally, influential political and military leaders including Benazir Bhutto, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and former army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, are known to have properties in London, Dubai, France, and Australia.

The Supreme Court is accused of lacking the courage to act against army officers. Many eminent lawyers, activists, and jurists in Pakistan have described the five-member bench’s decision as perverse. The bias of the court was also evident when the joint investigation team it set up included officers from the ISI and military intelligence, with no investigative or legal experience. The verdict is seen as being engineered by the judiciary, working in collusion with the army, which has no love lost for Sharif.

The army has had serious differences with Sharif, especially on his moves to improve relations with India. It objected to his visit to India for PM Narendra Modi’s inauguration. And when, in a move to improve relations, Modi visited Sharif in Lahore to attend a family marriage, the army deliberately undermined efforts to improve relations, by its attack a few days later on the Pathankot airbase, through Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The criminal cases about disproportionate assets held by Sharif, his two sons, daughter, and his finance minister Ishaq Dar (who is related to him) are to be tried separately by an “accountability court”. Forced to resign from office, Sharif has been determined to fight back legally and politically.

Given his effective control of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, Sharif has got a loyalist, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a US-educated engineer who was earlier petroleum minister, sworn in as Prime Minister.

The sensitive post of Interior (Home) has been given to yet another loyalist Ahsan Iqbal, who was an earlier planning minister. Iqbal replaces Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who was not only the senior-most member of Sharif’s Cabinet but also an ambitious politician, with close ties to the military establishment. Chaudhry Nisar, who fancied himself as a logical successor to Sharif, had strong differences with the former PM in recent days. He has now been dropped from the Cabinet.

Unexpected

Prior to the swearing-in of the new Cabinet, it was expected that Abbasi would continue as Prime Minister, till Shahbaz Sharif got elected to the National Assembly from the Lahore seat vacated by Nawaz. He would then take over as Prime Minister. But this whole proposal is under a cloud.

This goes back to the complex relations between the two Sharif brothers. In their younger days, the younger brother, Shahbaz, was considered to be smarter in business matters, while the older brother, Nawaz, took to politics. Nawaz moved to set up the Pakistan Muslim League and grew to lead the party to victory in national elections.

Shahbaz had a junior role as chief minister of Punjab. He established a more comfortable relationship with the army, with whom he behaved deferentially. Nawaz, in all these three terms, had a tense relationship with the army. Matters, however, appear to have come to a head when Shahbaz mobilized party support for his son Hamza to succeed him as chief minister of Punjab, when he moved to Islamabad, as Prime Minister in the course of coming weeks.

This evidently rang alarm bells in the Nawaz family, as Shahbaz and his family would then be ruling in both Islamabad and Lahore. Nawaz has designated his daughter Maryam as his successor. If she were found guilty on charges of unaccounted wealth, the leadership would pass to his wife Kulsoom, who is known to be tough-minded and strong-willed.

Essential

Nawaz, therefore, got senior party members in Lahore to demand that it was essential that Shahbaz should continue as chief minister in Lahore, to set the stage for participation in general elections next year, which many expect the ruling PML(N) to win. Prime Minister Abbasi, therefore, appears set to continue till the elections, with remote control exercised by Nawaz. Khwaja Mohammed Asif, who held the largely ceremonial post of defense minister, has been appointed as the foreign minister.

As defense minister, Asif had got used to taking his orders from the army chief. As foreign minister, he will have to seek to moderate the army’s support for terrorism in Afghanistan and India, in view of the emerging strong anti-terrorism policies of the Trump administration in Washington.

China will look on with concern about the abilities of the new dispensation to fulfill Pakistan’s responsibilities in implementing its growing number of infrastructure projects. These are issues India needs to keep a close eye on, as the ISI continues to spread terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, and elsewhere.

 

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