Released from freezing temperatures in the dungeons of Attock Fort in the North-West Frontier Province (nwfp), it was only a matter of hours before Pakistan's former prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, was walking down the red carpet in Saudi Arabia in a welcome befitting a prince.
In the whirl of dramatic developments on Sunday, December 10, the irony inherent in Sharif's exile was not lost on the nation. For, only a few months ago the military regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf had pleaded before the courts that life imprisonment wasn't severe enough a punishment for Sharif's crimes, that he ought to be awarded the death sentence. His departure is eloquent testimony to the fact that the country's rich are not subject to the rule of law.
Even earlier on Saturday night, the sight at the Chaklala air base, Rawalpindi, was reminiscent of banana republic politics. In the entourage of 60 people, consisting of 19 members of the Sharif clan and a posse of valets and maids, there was Abba jee, the man who together with his sons ruled Pakistan recklessly for nearly three years. When Sharif saw his father, he quickly touched the old man's feet in reverence. With the Saudi royal aircraft delayed by five hours, the Sharif clan insouciantly switched off the lights in the waiting room for a snooze. And to think this was the family the army regime wanted to be held accountable for large-scale corruption!
Says political analyst M. Ziauddin, "By letting him go in this manner, the regime is implying that it either had no case against Nawaz or it didn't have the guts to face the political fallout of pursuing such a course. Also, in the process it has created the impression that the regime was interested more in perpetuating its political power rather than in pursuing the accountability process. Today, the military regime has only robbed itself of whatever moral high ground it was left with after one year of its rule." Nor can the military regime hope to have neutralised Sharif. When the news of his exile grabbed headlines, and the intelligentsia reeled in shock, people in the nwfp were shouting, "Nawaz Sharif, visa bhijwao, hum tumharay saath hain (Nawaz Sharif send us the visa, we are with you)." Indeed, no one, not even the mighty generals, can declare that the Sharif chapter in Pakistani politics is over. Observers here feel that with immense wealth stashed away in foreign banks, Sharif is politically more dangerous abroad than he could have been in Pakistan.
Indeed, the man on the street isn't prepared to believe Sharif is a thief—or even powerless. For one, it was none other than the royal family of Saudi Arabia which patronised Sharif, described him as their "brother" and accorded him a reception he always received as prime minister. Such felicitation has the common man asking in disbelief: how could Sharif be a thief? Even US President Bill Clinton pitched in for Sharif, dispatching a message welcoming the regime's decision to send him into exile and expressing satisfaction at his safety. All this could only have bolstered Sharif's position. No one takes seriously the claim that Sharif will not indulge in politics from Saudi Arabia. Analysts cite the case of Benazir Bhutto who, though residing in the United Arab Emirates (uae) under similar limitations, continues to have links with her party, the Pakistan People's Party (ppp), and the media. It's too early to predict the kind of influence Sharif will wield on his Pakistan Muslim League (pml), but most agree he isn't going to bow out without a fight.
The exile drama has undermined the regime's credibility and prestige. Talk of money having changed hands in the Sharif deal has considerably reduced Gen Musharraf's image—as a man susceptible to bribes of foreign powers and who had the audacity to subvert the judicial process. Obviously, Sharif's exile wasn't a simple deal. Says Arif Nizami, editor of The Nation, "The fact that the Saudis have been giving free oil to Pakistan in the recent past and that Saudi Arabia and the uae have many times bailed Islamabad out of dire economic straits are factors which cannot be ignored in this context."
Says Benazir Bhutto, "Nawaz Sharif had a heart flutter and the establishment's heart fluttered. Without a medical board and without courtesy of the court, in whose custody he was, Sharif was taken out and spirited away." Sharif's exile has goaded the ppp to harp on the harsh treatment the army meted out to Benazir's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, as against the kid-gloves handling of Sharif. Says former ppp interior minister from the Frontier Province,
Gen (retd) Nasirullah Babar, "The Saudi royal family has adopted double standards. It had remained silent over the conviction of late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto but secured the release for a man involved in massive corruption. Why?" The fact that Benazir's husband Asif Ali Zardari continues to languish in prison, as also the party's refusal to cut a deal for him, will add to the ppp's arsenal—perhaps even offer a chance for the Bhuttos to try and repair their tarnished image.
The way Sharif has been bailed out will also heighten resentment in the other provinces about Punjabi domination. The refrain among Sindhi leaders is: "Why is it that when a prime minister has to be hanged by the military establishment, he is from Sindh, but a convict allowed to move out with bag and baggage into the luxury of royal palaces is from Punjab?" Benazir after a long time is now expected to play the "Sindh card" again—and it won't be long before the other provinces follow suit.
For politicians and party workers, Sharif's exile is a betrayal unprecedented in Pakistani politics and will serve as a catalyst for future action. The newly-formed Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ard) plans to kick off a large-scale courting of arrest after Eid, at the end of this month. But not everyone feels that politicians will be able to attract popular support. Commenting on the Opposition's plan, The Frontier Post wrote, "All through, democracy has got such a raw deal from them and they made such a mockery of it that they have eroded the people's trust in it. Little wonder, their 'return to democracy' chant is winning them no popular support. So badly have they conducted themselves all through the democratic era that they now stand condemned as a class in the eyes of the masses. They come to the masses as a pack of self-seeking, self-serving, unprincipled and avaricious lot."
While it is still too early to ascertain the response the ard could elicit, the generals are wary of its potential. And there is a view that Sharif's exile was hastened because the new alliance had brought the ppp and pml together on the same platform. Of late, the generals have evinced keen interest in the assemblies both at the Centre and in the provinces, meeting protocol officials. This has sparked off speculations about a possible revival of the national assembly. Will Musharraf be the new president a la Zia-ul-Haq? Realising that his team has failed to deliver, the assembly route could be one of Musharraf's exit options.It would help him retain his grip over the country and simultaneously maintain a facade of democracy.
In such a scenario, the pml's role will be crucial. Will the anti-Sharif faction agree to help bail out the general? "Initially," says columnist Mohammad Malick, "the pml too would participate in ard activities, even if for no other reason than the compulsion to overcome the shame of Nawaz's capitulation. We would see the return of the Nawaz rebels to the party fold and unless they can deliver a revived assembly to their party colleagues, they too would have no option but to adopt an anti-government stance to retain their own relevance within pml politics. There is little doubt that the complexion of the pml will figure heavily in any government decision regarding the revival of the national assembly." Of course, it's a moot point whether this charade can be maintained effectively for long.
The other option for Gen Musharraf is to open a dialogue with the political forces and at least initiate the process for the restoration of democracy. Otherwise, as history has repeatedly proved, when it comes to real politics, the will of the people always prevails over generals-turned-politicians.