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NEW DELHI — Pakistan’s ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is now perhaps both happy and unhappy. Happy that his country’s military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has spared his life. Yet unhappy, because the 25-year imprisonment handed him — for trying to prevent Musharraf’s plane from landing in Pakistan on Oct. 12, among other charges — can in many ways be worse than the noose.

Admittedly, nobody, not even the bookies who indulged in crazy betting, thought that Musharraf would copy the last military ruler, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, who hanged another ousted premier, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a little over two decades ago.

There was tremendous international pressure against such adventurism, and if one were to go by indications, U.S. President Bill Clinton himself had, during his recent stopover in Islamabad, asked Musharraf to be restrained.

But the moot point now is, does this incarceration spell the political doom of Sharif? The case can drag on for a long time. His lawyers filed an appeal against the sentence Wednesday, and the prosecution too will challenge the acquittals, disappointed that the former prime minister escaped capital punishment, while the six accused with him, including his brother, Shahbaz, were freed.

For obvious reasons, the judiciary will not dare oppose Musharraf; in any case, most of the judges are loyal to him. Those who were disinclined to be so, were removed when the dictator moved to strengthen the powers of the antiterrorism courts — which ironically Sharif had established — and forced the judges to swear a new oath.

Dissent, if at all, was smashed most brutally as it happened in the case of one defense lawyer, Iqbal Raad, who was shot in his Karachi office.

Curiously, the people are not protesting; apparently there is no love lost between them and the jailed leader. Sharif’s homeland, Lahore, was quiet in the days that followed the verdict. Such is the unpopularity of Sharif.

Worse, his party, Pakistan Muslim League, appears to be cracking up, with very few in it supporting their chief. There was only a token demonstration in Lahore after the conviction. Though Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom, and daughter, Merriam, tried to goad party workers into launching a movement, senior leaders said no. One of them averred that they would fight a legal battle rather than agitate on the roads.

Undoubtedly, this is a ploy to buy time. The anti-Sharif factions in the league are just waiting for a disqualification — which is bound to follow the judgment – that will stop him from contesting election. There are two groups who are believed to dislike the former prime minister: one is headed by Ejazul Haq, son of Zia-ul Haq, and the other by Mian Mohammad Azar, former governor of Punjab (a Pakistani province).

However, there is still a core group whose allegiance to Sharif is beyond question. It says he can well command the party from prison. After all, Bhutto remained the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, and his daughter Benazir now heads it, virtually from exile.

Yet, things can change. If the Supreme Court declares the Oct. 12 coup illegal, there will be violent confusion. But this outcome is almost unthinkable today, which means that the present junta will achieve legal status, and Sharif’s Muslim League will be tempted to look for another leader even if the sole aim is to contain the man in uniform.

There can be another development. Benazir and Sharif could not stand each other at one point of time. With both now out of commission, their political parties may try and forget the rancor they have for each other in order to take on a common enemy, Musharraf.

The general is, in a way, paving the way for a Bhutto-Sharif axis. Months after the coup, he is yet to talk to any politician. The average man in Pakistan feels that this is dangerous, for such isolation will inject greater authoritarianism into the dictator, further alienating him from the masses.

If the masses have been placid till now, it is largely because they have had enough of Sharif’s games. Cases against him range from defaulting on a business loan and evading taxes to the purchase of helicopters in 1993. This also why most political leaders have been so hesitant to point their fingers at Musharraf. Is this also why some of the defense lawyers were not aggressive enough ?

Whatever the reason, it’s not going to be easy for Sharif to get out of the mess he created and got into. It’s not going to be simple for the Pakistanis themselves, saddled as they are with two eminently unpalatable characters.

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