The Nawaz Conviction
April 18, 2000
LESS than one year after he convicted his predecessor in office, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif found himself sentenced to life imprisonment by an anti-terrorist court in Karachi. He was found guilty of hijacking and terrorism.
World attention had been riveted on the Nawaz trial in Pakistan, given that the charge carried the death penalty. America’s President Clinton led a cacophony of voices calling for clemency. The country’s new ruler, General Musharraf, had already declared that he was not a vindictive man. The trial judge saved testing the General on that promise by removing the death penalty
from the table. He could not, however, save the country from its time warp.
In four decades, courts have convicted four prime ministers, a record unmatched by any other country. The trials are set in motion by insecure successors seeking to consolidate power by eliminating rivals from the political scene.
Each act of elimination has opened a new Pandora’s box that further complicates the impoverished country’s future outlook. The first judicial elimination took place in the fifties. The Bengali Prime Minister Suhrawardy was tried for corruption. Accused of influencing the award of a contract, he cried out his innocence but the judicial dice was loaded against him. His disqualification helped embitter the eastern part of the county. It was a significant factor in the disenchantment of the Bengali people that led to the country’s disintegration in 1971.
In the sixties, a prime minister-to be escaped conviction. He was called Shaikh Mujibur Rahman. Winning the elections of 1970 proved his undoing. He was charged with treason and was imprisoned. However, before he was convicted, the country broke up. Even then, the ruling General Yahya planned to kill him to deny his leadership to his people. Before he could do so, Yahya was forced out of power by a revolt within the army itself.
His successor, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a compassionate man, freed Shaikh Mujib. As a popular leader with a legitimate mandate, he had no need for external crutches with which to divert the attention of the people. He believed that compassion would heal wounds and build bridges. It did. Despite the genocide that had been committed against the Bengali people, they reconciled with their brothers in the western wing three years later in Lahore in 1974. However, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a humanitarian, fell victim to the insecurity of his successor General Zia. When General Zia seized power in a coup in July 1977, he charged his benefactor with murder. Murder carried the death penalty.
Zia felt petrified that the popular Bhutto would return to power and he, Zia, would be tried for treason. Treason, according to the Pakistani Constitution, carried the death penalty. He was fond of saying, “Two men, one grave”, insinuating one of them would have to die for the other to live. In a butchery of justice and amidst international condemnation, Zia had Bhutto convicted for the murder of a man still alive twenty-one years after the Bhutto assassination. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto proudly walked to the gallows defying death and embracing martyrdom. The Bhutto’s judicial assassination polarized Pakistani society. Civil and military institutions were destroyed in an attempt to wipe out Bhutto supporters. Given that Bhutto was a liberal and a democrat, liberal and democratic elements were systematically weeded out of the state machinery.
Bhutto’s ghost haunted Zia until his last breath. That brutal and bloody conviction boxed Zia into a corner. Pakistan’s political development fell victim to Zia’s desperate desire to escape the crime he had committed. As neighbouring India advanced, Pakistan fell prey to collapsing institutions. Drug mafias, ethnic militias, sectarian groups and gun runners held sway as weak administrative institutions bowed before their power.
Nature has its own form of retribution. Zia died in a ball of fire as his C-130 malfunctioned. His death paved the way for elections that saw the Pakistan People’s Party return to power with massive popular support.
Given the popularity amongst the masses, the PPP turned its back on the politics of revenge. Secure in its power base, it concentrated on governance.
Introducing the world of modern communications and deregulating the economy through privatization for the first time in South Asia, it gave Pakistan a head start in the new world of emerging free markets. However, the popularity of the PPP amongst the masses was not mirrored amongst the elites that had enjoyed power during the days of dictatorship. Twice, through palace intrigues, the elites ended a government enjoying the support of the parliament and the people. They did it through presidential edicts.
The elites, wiped almost clean of liberal and democratic elements, found it hard to reconcile to the people’s will. Using the sword of unsubstantiated scandals, they successfully removed the PPP governments by presidential fiats. The judicial stamp, used to lend legitimacy to an illegitimate act, politicized and undermined the judiciary itself. Although one chief justice was rewarded with the presidency of the country for legitmizing the PPP overthrow, three other chief justices were sacked in short periods.
In a democratic society, the judiciary is the corner-stone of law and justice. As an independent branch of government, it is critical to the balance of power in civil society. In supplanting parliament with the judiciary as the institution to change governments, that balance has been lost in Pakistan. The result has been repeated collapse and vacuum.
Each time a democratic government elected by the people was dismissed by the presidential fiat, it was followed by an electoral charade. Ballot boxes were fixed to achieve the desired, predetermined results. In a famous phrase, one president actually declared on the eve of the rigged elections: “I have bathed the dead body and all you have to do is bury it”. The boast was that the elite’s had taken care of the election results and only the formality of the exercise remained. Each time, the beneficiary of the meddling elite’s was the man now sentenced to life: Nawaz Sharif.
Lacking a popular mandate and at war with the popular leader, Nawaz Sharif resorted to desperate measures to keep himself in power. The entire financial, coercive, judicial, legislative and information resources of the state were abused in a vain attempt to crush the parliamentary opposition.
Each desperate act exposed the regime’s political weakness. Governance was neglected as the regime hounded the opposition. Unemployment and inflation ran rampant. The country went bankrupt forcing donors to reschedule loans.
Such was the state of affairs that one army chief publicly called upon the prime minister to give up his policies of paranoia and political vendetta. He was sacked. That sacking planted the seeds of the quarrel between the army and Nawaz. Unfortunately for Nawaz Sharif, whilst the powerful elite’s dominating the country’s power structure could win him power, the failure to give stability would erode their support for him. Neither side realized the economic consequences of neglecting governance to obliterate the opposition.
Neither side realized that the pre-requisites of an unjust campaign had serious side-effects: manipulating the judiciary, the legislature, the press, bankers, businessman and foreign investors. Such manipulation had its own repercussions, unraveling the facade of the democratic structure behind which the sequence of events had been staged.
Responsibility over the Kargil operation, which led to fierce border fighting between India and Pakistan last year, forced the final split between Nawaz and the elite’s that had brought him to power. In seeking to blame and sack the army chief over the Kargil incident, Nawaz divided his backers. Had the country not descended into financial and political chaos, Nawaz Sharif might have got away with it. But the popular discontent gave the military the public support needed to overthrow the Nawaz regime.
Nawaz had successfully sacked a military chief a year earlier. Then the atmosphere was different. The elite’s lauded him for the nuclear detonations which took place in the spring of 1998. The second sacking took place amidst the bitter ashes of the Kargil defeat in 1999. The humiliation of a unilateral withdrawal from Kargil, announced from Washington, giving the impression of dictation, vitiated the atmosphere. The elites divided in their support of him. Nawaz fell when they withdrew their support. The new rulers are as insecure as Nawaz was during his tenure. Whilst the people backed the Nawaz sacking, public support for military rule is lacking.
Threats for the regime abound within the state structure itself. Nawaz Sharif may be behind bars but his political clout is still there within the establishment. As the political son and heir of the late General Zia, he was the establishment’s favorite. His ouster is the first fissure in the illiberal constituency built by General Zia during his long tenure. Nawaz may have gone to prison, but Pakistan is still run under the myopic policies of the elite’s. They have switched their support to Musharaf. Yet, unless the descent into economic chaos can be reversed, Musharaf is in trouble.
Uncertainty therefore haunts the new rulers. To please the conservative elite’s, they need to hound the democratic alternative. To consolidate their grip on the establishment, they need to eliminate Nawaz. Their pursuing of Nawaz and the popular forces is tinged with the same passion as Nawaz’s hounding of his Political advertise. It is more troublesome in that they are challenging both political parties and falling between two stools. Given that scenario, they dig the same hole Nawaz did: allowing the country to continue its slide into recession and social upheaval by concentrating on vendetta. The pursuit of political vendetta, and the thirst to seek their rivals’ elimination by abusing the judicial process complicates the crisis in Pakistan. It has three political fallout’s:
First, it boxes the rulers into a corner. Fear of retribution prevents the development of an exit strategy to take the country back to normality.
Second, it weakens civil institutions further as the army takes over administrative jobs.
Third, it leads to mis-governance and the prospect of popular discontent giving rise to new dangers. Dangers that the rulers might seek an external diversion from domestic woes which may lead to yet another armed conflict between India and Pakistan.
Fourth, in pursuing a child of the establishment, the establishment itself is strained and a revolt within its folds becomes a possibility. The fourth martial law in Pakistan presents General Musharaf with an opportunity to work with the political forces for an orderly transition back to civil society. In his ability to abandon persecution and embrace reconciliation, he can pave a fourth way forward for the military to withdraw. The previous withdrawals leave much to desire. The first martial law dictator, Ayub Khan, withdrew, amidst street riots calling for his hanging, by handing power over to his subordinate, General Yahya Khan. The second martial law dictator, Yahya, was forced to withdraw from power after humiliating the country with a shameful policy in East Pakistan which led to surrender before India. The third clung on to power until he went up in a ball of fire when his military aircraft crashed.
Musharaf, and his colleagues, who planned the coup, will rest better if they plan their exit through political consensus rather than tempt fate. Those who tempt fate, live to regret the day.