Nawaz Sharif Pakistan
Pakistani news channels telecast live Pakistan's ailing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing opposition parties meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2020. Sharif broke a yearlong silence from exile in London to vow to oust Imran Khan from office Image Credit: AP

He may not have nine political lives but the thrice-elected prime minister of Pakistan, twice-dismissed and as many times exiled leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Nawaz Sharif, does live to fight another day. His video-link speech, delivered from London, after an almost year-long silence, to the opposition’s All Parties Conference (APC) has triggered a massive national debate about the likely future course of national politics.

Personally, Sharif could not have asked for a better re-entry into the media and political loop. Not that he was irrelevant, but he had outsourced much of the political activity to his brother and doves in his party to deal with the country’s formidable military establishment and had taken a back seat.

The tactical hiatus was supposed to bring some relief to his beleaguered family that has faced an endless list of controversial cases that Imran Khan’s government has used to italicise his alleged corruption and justified tightening the noose around him.

The opposition wants the Imran government to go, followed by new elections and enforcement of the constitution that keeps the army in the barracks rather than lording over the ballots. Imran Khan feels the wind of General Bajwa’s support on his back and treats the opposition plans with disdain

- Syed Talat Hussain

The exact opposite happened. More cases were framed against his party leaders in the months of his silence; last week a national court declared him an absconder dismissing his plea that he was not fit to travel back to Pakistan and that the verdict against him in another case had ceased to hold legality after the adjudicating judge was videotaped telling his friends how he was manipulated to get Sharif disqualified. The judge since then has been ousted from service. His verdict is still intact.

That must have got the former prime minister’s gall and made him launch a blistering attack against what he termed sham democracy, run behind the scenes by the country’s all powerful army. His pointed references to the 2018 manipulated elections, subverted civilian authority, a hamstrung judiciary, a muzzled media, and above all else a state-above-the-state has left very little to imagination as to the direction he was training his guns to.

Latest on Pakistan

“Our fight is not against Imran Khan, but against those who installed this incompetent and corrupt government to power”, he declared calmly and firmly in a 45-minute punch-packed tirade. He urged the participants of the conference to become battle-ready to overthrow the government and restore the “honour of the vote”, his pet phrase since his ouster from power three years ago. The combined opposition’s action plan that followed included in its bullet-points a two-phased protest, starting with nationwide protest rallies, and culminating in a march on the capital in January 2021.

Shrinking fundamental rights

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that Sharif’s speech has moved the opposition to finalising the action plan. Almost all the parties agree that the country is headed in the wrong direction with a gasping economy and shrinking fundamental and political rights. As state institutions become more authoritarian, showing contempt for dissent and due process and the government insensitive to the rising prices of basic commodities, unemployment and poverty, an opportunity for the opposition beckons to launch a national movement.

But political life isn’t all that simple in Pakistan. One swallow (or speech) does not make summer here. Imran government is in a deep buddy-bond with the Army chief. If anything, Sharif’s frontal attack on both (Khan and Pakistan’s Army chief) would only push them to tighten their hug. Since they both sink together, they would ensure that they come out of this challenge swimming.

This puts the combined opposition against a formidable front. The army chief commands massive resources and the media toes the line fed to them by the powers that be. With the courts playing second fiddle on protection of basic freedoms and disappearance cases becoming routine, filling the streets with agitators is easier said than done.

More to the point, Sharif is an absent commander of the forces that he wants to visit upon the government. He can blare his bugles and wear the warpaint but cannot be in the field. He has a worthy proxy in Pakistan, his daughter, a fiercely competitive and new-generation political star: Mariam Nawaz. However, she is skating thin ice. Out on bail in a case, she can be put behind bars at a touch.

Her party colleagues can also be hauled up leaving the rank and file to fend and plan for themselves. Similar fate can befall other opposition leaders. In fact, the government has indicated this much. Its response to the opposition plan has been a combination of sizzling contempt and renewed resolve to beat them out of existence.

Where will it all lead to? Hard to tell. Even a day is a long time in Pakistani politics, and hardly anyone can claim to hold a crystal ball that foretells events pencilled and stretched over months. But one thing is for sure: political divisions in the country seem to have become unbridgeable.

No grey areas in Pakistan

There are no grey areas left. The opposition wants the Imran government to go, followed by new elections and enforcement of the constitution that keeps the army in the barracks rather than lording over the ballots. Imran Khan feels the wind of General Bajwa’s support on his back and treats the opposition plans with disdain.

All of this has the makings of a turbulent period ahead, more instability, and, possibly, also violence. Traditionally, in such build-ups, the army plays the arbiter, sometimes dismissing protagonists; sometimes mediating and facilitating new elections; and sometimes by taking over power themselves.

The difference now is that General Bajwa is seen in partisan light, one who has already picked his side. If he swings with the Imran government in combating the opposition now, he will only endorse the central message of Sharif’s narrative.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12