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The Tragic Story of Civilian Prime Ministers in Pakistan

Aparna Pande

It is often easier to speak truth to power when you are no longer holding a position in the government. However, the frankness with which former Pakistani prime minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has lately been speaking out on issues ailing Pakistan is to be commended. Cynics will rightly point out that it would have been better if Sharif had been as frank when he was PM, not once but three times. However, it is difficult to fault a civilian Pakistani PM as they are by definition an endangered species. As author and diplomat Husain Haqqani writes in his new book Reimagining Pakistan: “In the last seventy years, all elected Pakistani prime ministers have either been assassinated, dismissed or forced to resign by heads of state or the judiciary with military backing, or deposed in coups d’état.”

Sharif is one of the many politicians in Pakistan who had the military’s support when he first came to power. During his first two tenures as PM (1990-93, 1997-99), Sharif attempted to stay within the red lines defined by the Pakistani military establishment. However, his attempts to garner absolute power for himself brought him into conflict with the judiciary and the security establishment.

Like his political rival Benazir Bhutto, Sharif appeared to have understood that what Pakistan needed was more democracy, better relations with its neighbours, and to fight terrorism. Even before he returned to power in 2013, Sharif spoke about the need for better relations with India and Afghanistan. At a speech in 2011, Nawaz Sharif called upon the security establishment to “end your domination of foreign policy if you wish the criticism to end” and stressed the need for Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan to be one that is with the Afghan people, not with certain organizations. In an interview before taking over as PM in May 2013, Sharif spoke of the need for “civilian supremacy” and the need for all institutions “to live within the four walls of the constitution”.

During his four years in power, there is evidence that suggests Sharif did seek to implement these policies. He visited Afghanistan within a month of taking over and followed up with trips in subsequent years. Over the next few years, Sharif spoke of the need to eliminate all terrorist sanctuaries and deal with any militant group that destabilized Afghanistan. That Pakistan’s policies remained unchanged and the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and their allies remain as secure in their base inside Pakistan today as they were five years ago, demonstrates, once again, that Pakistan’s foreign policy is defined, framed and executed by the army and Inter-Services Intelligence in Rawalpindi, not the civilians in Islamabad.

In May 2014, when Indian PM Narendra Modi invited all his South Asian counterparts to attend his inauguration, Sharif accepted the invitation, knowing fully well how it would be interpreted by the military-intelligence establishment. The December 2015 visit by Modi to Lahore, and the images of the two PMs walking hand in hand, led to hopes of rapprochement in both countries. Unfortunately, the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016, followed by the Uri terror attack later that year, ensured that there would be no further talks between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment continues to view India as an existential threat and thus continues to use jihadis as a lever of foreign policy against India. Any civilian leader attempting to change this policy has no chance of achieving his or her goal or of staying in power.

If Sharif is to be faulted, it is that instead of focusing on issues where he could make a difference in his five years, he invested too much of his time and energy on his obsession with ensuring that former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf was punished for the coup of 1999. While in principle one agrees that dictators must get their due, pragmatism demanded that maybe this could have waited for a later date and time.

There is no doubt that the Pakistani army has always protected its own from any attempts at prosecution or punishment. Both generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan did not suffer any consequences for their actions and there was no way that the army would allow Musharraf to be prosecuted either. Sharif thus broke too many red lines and paid for doing so. In July 2017, he was ousted from power by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on grounds of corruption. Later, the Supreme Court banned Sharif from holding public office for life.

This is not the first time that a Pakistani civilian PM has been ousted on grounds of corruption and it will not be the last. Why is it that every popular civilian PM has only ever been dismissed on charges of corruption? If they are so incompetent, then their incompetence must be visible in other areas as well. Why has no PM been dismissed for failing to educate Pakistanis, providing jobs and employment to the millions who enter the job market, and fighting terrorism and safeguarding law and order?

The answer lies in the overwhelming power of the military-intelligence establishment and its cohorts, who know that if they allow a discussion on any issue other than corruption, then they will be the ones to feel the heat. As the one wing of state that has dictated Pakistan’s national identity, absorbed all its economic resources and dictated the country’s foreign and security policy, it is the security establishment which has the most to fear from a popular civilian PM who seeks to change the course of Pakistan’s trajectory. That is the unfortunate tragedy of Pakistan.

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