Nawaz Sharif's ouster has thrown Pakistan into political turmoil. The actors have changed but the tortuous plotline is all too familiar.
Spoiler alert. The Red Wedding is a massacre during the 'War of the Five Kings', an episode shot in gruesome detail and chilling speed to be the season three finale of the hit HBO fantasy series, Game of Thrones. In it, Lord Walder Frey, a cynical wheeler-dealer, takes revenge against the robust contender King Robb Stark for breaking the marriage pact between House Stark and House Frey, kills young King Robb, his pregnant wife, mother, bannermen and soldiers at a family wedding. Caught by surprise but convinced of their noble intent and entitlement till their last-drawn breaths, almost all the Starks are wiped out, in one violent, coordinated master move. In the game of thrones, writes author George R.R. Martin, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.
If you're a Pakistani, the plot line isn't merely ironic. But unfortunately for him, Nawaz Sharif is no Game of Thrones fan, or he would have sensed what was coming. He's never read the fantasy books, either, and is not in a position to predict any form of screenplay. In fact, it is said that Sharif doesn't read much at all except for the summaries that have already been recited to him, and the op-ed section of an Urdu rag firmly allied with his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) PML(N). His consequent myopia in the Panama case too-including the tardy media planning, pushing the army's buttons, flirting with India, bungling the equilibrium with the Arab states, a legal strategy that wouldn't survive a day in a law school moot court, and a money trail more creative than an Ocean's 11 heist-has been largely self-inflicted.
Yet, despite what he and his clansmen have been through since last week -- their very own political massacre of sorts -- Nawaz Sharif continues to be Nawaz Sharif: defiant, static, ready to hit the sack at 10 pm, and still the leader of the longest ruling political dynasty the Islamic republic has seen.
The only elected prime minister in the world to have been dethroned three times -- by a constitutionally-elected president in 1993, a military usurper in 1999, and an inquisitive supreme court last week -- it's most probably Sharif's lack of dynamism which may have done him in for good this time.
In retrospect, the case could have been better politically managed. By mid-2016, when the Panama leaks started dripping into his family quarters, Sharif had multiple plays at his disposal: protracted negotiations with the opposition, empowering the accountability investigators to go on a wild goose chase, letting Imran Khan get bogged down with another long-drawn protest, even asking the military for help by cutting the right deals on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (the army wanted to be on a commission to manage the project) and, of course, behaviour on India.
Instead, Sharif miscalculated. Rather than stalling a scandal that was clearly headed for the courts, Sharif actively inspired the inquisition. As his kids went on chat show after chat show, he made a haphazard national address, and even followed it up with an apologetic speech on the floor of parliament, all while his information machine-read, his daughter and sponsored trolls took to Twitter and tried to manage the same-old-same-old media and political allies with the same-old-same-old patterns of patronage: junkets, advertisements and a juicy story or two about the army and/ or Khan.
Disturbingly unfazed, Sharif continued as if it was business as usual: inconsequential international visits, hours of ribbon cuttings, showing off for months about some new Moody's ranking or the stock exchange, chafing the ISI with the internally-engineered leaks to the press (the entire Dawn leaks saga), a dossier on Kashmir that never saw the light of day at the UN, zero cabinet reshuffles, cracking down on an insurgent Imran, even the meeting with Indian tycoon Sajjan Jindal. It was as if nothing had happened, and that Panama was a hat, or a canal, rather than a mortal threat.
Moreover, so disorganised was his entire legal defence game, and so badly managed his optics, that after barely surviving the first verdict in April by 3-2, the formation of the same joint investigation team (JIT) that brought upon his damning end was celebrated with laddoos by his ministers.
On the last day of the hearings, as his newly-hired lawyers -- some of the best in the business but clearly not up to speed with the complexities of the months-long case and JIT ambush -- bumbled like nervous schoolboys. The most exciting piece of news his information ministry could put out was a statistic, and a plea: that the Panama case had enjoyed over 2,600 hours of prime-time news programming, and that 'rumours' about the PM's oldest comrade, the powerful and pro-establishment interior minister Nisar Ali Khan, should be ignored.
A day before the disqualification judgment, Nisar resigned anyway, moving away from the calamity that the rest of Team Nawaz was, till the morning of the verdict, still spinning it as some peculiar international conspiracy against CPEC, if not a home-brewed one. Meanwhile, as his hometown of Lahore suffered a massive suicide bomb attack, and copies of the undisclosed iqamas (work permits of the Gulf states) issued to him and his top ministers-and possible replacements-embarrassingly appeared, Sharif left for the sinking islands of the Maldives. Nero, thy name is Nawaz, wailed Pakistan. Thus, the mainstream was lost.
Also not clear: the fate of the pending cases against him, his heir-apparent daughter, sons, son-in-law and deputy/brother-in-law, the wily finance minister Ishaq Dar, which will now be heard over the next few months by the accountability courts.
Legally, their Red Wedding is well laid out. The Supreme Court of Pakistan isn't a trial court, so it has passed a verdict about Sharif's moral standing in principle, based on constitutional grounds for not disclosing income. The more dramatic criminal proceedings, on ghost mills and fake fonts -- open hearings, packed courts, arrest warrants, and details from the clandestine Volume X of the JIT report, which is rumoured to show even more of the Sharifs' financial underbelly, replete with damning inputs from other countries -- are yet to come, and is to be monitored by an SC judge from the same panel that disqualified him. And that doesn't count the unending amount of leaked documents and disclosures which keep on mysteriously appearing on all media. Thus, the next phase of trials isn't going to be the Sharifs' Starks versus the judicial Freys or the armed Lannisters. Soon enough, even the common Wildlings will have breached the Wall.
As for business as usual, it's now the army's turn to act nonchalant. The last politically loaded statement by General Headquarters was weeks ago, on the same day the JIT findings were released, when the blood was in the water.
Also read: Graft case: Nawaz Sharif and Maryam indicted
Then, the army had vowed to "continue supporting and enabling national efforts to play [a] positive role in line with Pakistan's national interests". However, within days, a new counter-insurgency operation was launched in Khyber, General Qamar Javed Bajwa vowed to make CPEC a success ("come what may", he said), Balochistan was announced as a top national security priority, attacks on the Frontier Corps were thwarted, the Indian DGMO "warned", ceasefire violations "repulsed", and the Americans and Afghans cautioned about their "blame game" and cognisance reiterated about the pending Afghanistan policy brewing in Washington. There was even a visit to a tank factory by the chief. In a heady July, it was as if Pakistan's soldiers existed on another realm altogether, nowhere close to the chaos of Panama.
The firewall was deliberate. On the day Nawaz Sharif was disqualified, 110 square kilometres of the treacherous Rajgal Valley on the Af-Pak border were claimed cleared. Most ironically, the day Sharif left the Prime Minister House for his favourite hill station Murree, the army chief put on his Blue Patrol ceremonial dinner dress, and vowed to fight and die with the People's Liberation Army at a Chinese embassy gala. After running for almost a month, the GHQ's plotline finally became clear: the Pakistan army wants nothing to do with the Panama bedlam. But the firewall is not necessarily permanent, especially if the Sharifs decide to play rough.
Of course, given their institution's history with the former PM, individual accounts by serving and retired officers relay relief, even glee, about Sharif's plight. Also, a mysteriously hyperactive social media is churning out memes, projections, poetry, music videos, even potential constitutional amendments for a presidential system (which would favour Imran, of course), and maps for smaller provinces, all celebrating the fall of the Sharifs and their takht Lahore.
Tellingly, no PML(N) functionary or partner has managed to produce a shred of credible evidence to date, directly or indirectly linking the military with the madness. But one good read of the JIT report, and it's pretty obvious: much of the digging and drafting of the court-sanctioned investigation was conducted with a fervent warrior ethic: thinker, lawyer, soldier, spy.
The future of Pakistan's newest superhero itself is increasingly murky. In daylight, Imran Khan is the King Slayer; the Kaptaan has singlehandedly led the Panama charge against the Sharifs for 16 months, and has never been more politically powerful. But in the dark, his demons arise. An hour after the interim PM was sworn in, his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) saw the departure of an important party-member, the young Ayesha Gulalai, who claimed that Khan sexually harassed her via text messages. By the next morning, references for disqualification had been filed against Khan. Last month saw another PTI defection, as well as the beginning of Khan's own sadiq and ameen hearings (petitioned by the Sharifs, targeting his own financial disclosures linked to his London and Islamabad properties). For now, yes, he is favoured by a middle-class establishment as an upper-class hero and antithesis to the mogul mindset of the Sharifs. But, no, the military will not be a good Samaritan and go on a limb if Khan is disqualified.
If Khan also goes, the floodgates will open. The Zardaris, with a slowly maturing Bilawal and a near invisible Asif, will also have to face the courts. There's enough data out there against many prominent members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for a political bloodbath in Sindh. Thus, Bilawal's admission that he did not eat mithai on the day of the Sharif verdict was poignant. The PPP has no reason to celebrate, only to plan: how, as the projected third largest vote-getter in the next elections, can it play the role of a coalition partner and/ or kingmaker? In the current scheme, the PML(N) and Khan's PTI will vie for nothing but the Punjab. The PPP will have to weaken and support both sides just enough so that they don't slay the PPP itself, but each other. And yes, Machiavellian as they are, the Zardaris will continue to play ball with the military.
The transition so far has been smooth. Many consider the interim prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a good guy. But the straight-shooting, number-crunching, former minister of oil and gas, a geeky UCLA engineer from the mountains of Murree who prefers to meet friends at hip coffee shops, has a problem bigger than the accountability investigation he himself is facing in an energy deal-in an increasingly polarised polity, he's a Sharif loyalist.
The more he plays Nawaz up, as Abbasi did in his inaugural speech on August 1, the harder it will be for him to govern. His party's longer play is also complex. To keep loyalties intact and stem defections, the family was forced to leak their succession plan merely hours after the verdict. In it, the younger Sharif-Shahbaz, the efficient CM, ultimate wingman, and watcher of Fortress Punjab, would take over from Abbasi after the 45-day interim period. The progressives will scream nepotism, but who cares? It all stays in the family.
At first glance, the plan makes sense. Shahbaz has a more pliant relationship with the military, is far more dynamic and energetic than his brother, and can probably micromanage the federal and remote control the provincial set-up the Sharifs have built their house on, till the general elections next year. He's got less than a year to go, anyway.
But a legal trap has been laid. The damning Hudaibya Paper Mills case, and less important Model Town killings incident-the only two scandals the younger Sharif could be tainted with-stay unresolved. If his brother and party stray away and stop playing nice, Shahbaz and his ambitious son, Hamza, too could get slammed. Thus, all the Starks would go. But that episode is yet to play out. For the Sharifs, winter is coming. Perhaps it is already here.
Take Nawaz, turn him inside out, chuck out a few years, throw on some headgear, and you get the younger brother. Shahbaz Sharif is always up at 6 am, functions on four or less hours of sleep, never misses his morning swim, speaks fluent German and Arabic, is even considered a ladies man, but unlike his big bro, he ain't no Nero.
Known for his celebrated 'Punjab Speed' brand of governance -- now local jargon for a quick turnaround of developmental projects -- Shahbaz is the permanent running back to Nawaz's quarterback. Although announced, it's not clear if he will take over from Nawaz in Islamabad: his aides think if Shahbaz leaves Lahore, the Sharifs might just lose Fortress Punjab.
His play during the Panama investigation signals his intentions. The JIT report says he 'distanced himself' from the story about the Gulf Steel Mill tailored by his family. And in the middle of the Dawn leaks debacle, when his brother's office arranged for a story detailing an argument between Shahbaz and the ISI chief, he was the first one to reject it and move away from the crime scene.
The brass likes him for his no-nonsense sense of governance and his ability to always keep the backdoor open with GHQ. Shahbaz's survival will be the ultimate litmus test of what remains of the Sharifs' power.