NEW DELHI — Pakistan’s two most important political figures are facing bleak times.

Nawaz Sharif, once the most powerful man in the country, is now caught in the murkiest of legal cases, and escape from them seems almost impossible. Recently, the deposed prime minister was sentenced to 14 years’ hard imprisonment in a corruption case, fined very heavily and ordered not to hold public office for 21 years. This can well be the last nail on the coffin of his ambition.

For, Sharif is already serving two life terms for hijacking the current strongman Pervez Musharraf’s aircraft in October, hours before the coup in which he was overthrown) and terrorism.

Analysts aver that Sharif’s political career is over. His hold over his party, Pakistan Muslim League, has weakened considerably in the past few months. His own brother, Shahbaz, also facing criminal charges, has said publicly that he and others will not dare oppose Islamabad’s military ruler.

With the two brothers gone by sheer default, Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom, appears to be the rising star. She is practically the only voice against the dictatorship. When she was detained recently for about 10 hours in a clear bungling by the police, her popularity among the masses soared.

“I have to carry on. I have no choice. I must tell the world that Gen. Musharraf is an evil man,” Kulsoom told her supporters in the Pakistan Muslim League who are in a minority as opposed to the others who hope to patch things up with the military. Included in this progovernment group is Ijaz ul-Haq, son of the last dictator, Zia ul-Haq.

But for Musharaff — the other political figure in Pakistan trying to grapple with a dark period — Sharif or his party is the least of worries. The nation’s economy is a shambles. Foreign reserves are disappearing. Nobody is willing to invest there, and the International Monetary Fund has been playing tough.

Equally terrifying for Musharaff is the presence of the strong religious rightwing clergy, which has been operating behind the scene in the present India-Pakistan conflict. The priests are close to many of the fundamentalist organizations like the Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen and Lashkar-e-Toiba, now fighting a proxy war in India’s Kashmir.

Musharaff has been under tremendous pressure from this hardline clergy: he revived the Islamic injunctions in the Constitution. These guidelines determine who is a Muslim and who is not, and also make sure that every law of the land conforms to the religion’s tenets. It is apparent that Musharaff is out to play the “little good boy” with the priests.

In fact, when he introduced a small change to the stringent blasphemy law, Islamic leaders denounced it until they were hoarse. They said that the man was trying to bring about secularism. Even his move to create a market for cable television was viewed with anger.

This is not all. Musharaff’s plan to survey small businesses and introduce a general sales tax on retail goods have been decried, despite the fact that international lenders have refused to give credit unless some tax reforms were brought in.

The general is a frustrated soul all right. He said in the course of a recent interview, “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of things to be done, but we have to be focused. . . .”

Yet another bone of contention has been the Islamic training camps called madarasas. Islamabad wants to modernize them, but the mullahs say no. There are virtually hundreds of madarasas on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan where thousands are being trained to kill and destroy. It was from these institutions that the Taliban militia rose to conquer Kabul and impose its brutal Islamic law.

These madarasas are now training men to conduct a jihad (holy war) in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Topping it all is the Supreme Court directive to Musharaff asking him to revert to democracy within three years of the coup.

The military dictator has an unenviable task trying to appease the mullahs and shopkeepers while trying to safeguard his image as someone moderate — someone who has promised to bring democracy back to Pakistan.

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