Pakistan sticks to a sad tradition

This article originally appeared in The Hindu

The decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reaffirms the iron law of Pakistani politics: a politician can amass wealth and engage in corruption only as long as he does not challenge the ascendance of the country’s powerful national security establishment. Although Mr. Sharif has ostensibly been disqualified over the so-called Panama Papers, which exposed holders of offshore bank accounts, the verdict against him has little to do with the revelations in the Panama Papers.

Mr. Sharif and his family have definitely expanded their assets several fold since his entry into politics more than three decades ago as a protégé of the Islamist military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, and the former chief of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But he was not put on trial for corruption and convicted. Instead, the Supreme Court acted politically, as it often does, and created a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) that included military intelligence representatives. The JIT’s job was ostensibly to uncover the trail of the Sharifs’ wealth and the Supreme Court used the JIT’s findings to determine that Mr. Sharif could no longer fulfill the constitutionally mandated qualifications for his office.

When he ended Martial Law, General Zia had added several provisions to Pakistan’s Constitution, some of which related to moral qualifications for membership of parliament. Their purpose was to give the all-powerful national security establishment a constitutional instrument to control the political process even after the military’s withdrawal from direct political intervention. Those provisions have finally been invoked to rid Pakistan of a meddlesome Prime Minister.

Articles of expediency

During the 1990s, civilian Prime Ministers who failed to toe the line in key policy areas could be dismissed by the President, who was always a reliable establishment figure. After three dismissals, twice of the army’s bete noire Benazir Bhutto and once of Mr. Sharif, the civilians got rid of Article 58-2(b) of the Constitution that authorised the President to unilaterally dissolve Parliament and dismiss Prime Ministers. The absence of the establishment’s safety valve paved the way for General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup in 1999.

Aware that the 21st century is less conducive to direct military takeovers than preceding decades, Gen Musharraf reintroduced the notion of presidential dismissal before sharing power with civilians again. The civilians dispensed with it again in a consensus constitutional package in 2008. Since then, Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, inserted by Zia and ironically kept alive with the support of Mr. Sharif and Pakistan’s religious parties, have been cited as the means whereby the establishment can keep politicians on the straight and narrow.

In its judgment disqualifying Mr. Sharif, the Supreme Court has found him in violation of Article 62(1)(f) that demands that members of Parliament be “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and Ameen”. The last of these, “Ameen”, meaning ‘the keeper of trust’ is one of the attributes of Prophet Muhammad, which by definition is a hard standard to meet for any Muslim who deems the Prophet ‘the most perfect’ human being. Ordinary mortals can easily be found in violation of that noble standard.

By claiming the right to disqualify any elected representative of his/her office for not meeting such exacting standards of probity, the Pakistani Supreme Court has arrogated to itself the authority similar to that of Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets all candidates for elective office. The Council routinely disqualifies politicians on grounds that they are not sufficiently dedicated to Islamic values.

Setting a precedent

The disqualification of Mr. Sharif sets the precedent for future judicial coups. That does not mean Mr. Sharif has not amassed wealth beyond explainable means or does not have property across the world that might have been acquired through questionable transactions. But corruption must be dealt with by legal means, not on the say of rival politicians or intelligence operatives operating without being subject to laws of evidence.

If legally admissible evidence of corruption had existed, there would have been a trial, not direct intervention by the Supreme Court, which should only be the court of final appeal in criminal matters. So what is really going on? Pakistan is simply keeping its sad tradition that disallows politicians to ever be voted out of office by the voters who elected them to that office in the first place.

In the last seventy years, all Pakistani Prime Ministers have either been assassinated, dismissed or forced to resign by heads of state with military backing, or deposed in coups d’etat. Mr. Sharif is the second Prime Minister, after Yousuf Raza Gilani, to be sent home by an activist Supreme Court amidst an orchestrated media furore. Ironically, Mr. Sharif was installed as Prime Minister in 1990 by the military in intrigue that was exposed decades later. That intrigue involved the army creating the multi-party alliance, Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), through the ISI and funding Mr. Sharif and others with money taken from corrupt businessmen. At that time, the Pakistani establishment deemed Benazir Bhutto ‘a security risk’ over her avowed desire to change attitudes towards India and the rest of South Asia.

Mr. Sharif fell out of the army’s favour when he decided to assert himself in the conduct of foreign and national security policy after becoming Prime Minister. He was ousted once by the President and a second time by the army chief in a coup. Elected for a third time, he has now been sent packing through the Supreme Court. He is clearly a flawed man but the manner of his removal from office is even more flawed.

The India Connection

During the Panama Papers saga, Mr. Sharif was accused in social media of being an Indian agent and rumours swirled of his alleged investments in India and ‘secret partnerships’ with Indian businessmen. This reveals the real cause of anxiety with him, which could not be rumours of corruption because that did not bother the establishment when it initially supported him.

The role Mr. Sharif played in the late 1980s, as the establishment’s Cat’s Paw, has now been taken over by cricketer-turned politician, Imran Khan. There is no guarantee, however, that if Mr. Khan ever comes to power he would not meet a similar fate when he insists on making policy instead of being content with having office and implementing the establishment’s prescriptions. Just like the IJI-ISI intrigue was fully uncovered decades later, we will probably find out details of the intrigue leading to Mr. Sharif’s ouster several years later too.

Unfortunately, Mr. Sharif’s ouster is unlikely to stem the tide of widespread corruption in Pakistan. It might also not be the end of Mr. Sharif, who could possibly win another election in his Punjab base. But the episode proves again that Pakistan is far from being a democracy where the law takes its course, institutions work within their specified spheres and elected leaders are voted in or out by the people.