It is a fair to assume that Nawaz Sharif will never be written up in a Harvard School of Government case study. The former prime minister of Pakistan, who was stripped of office on Friday by the Supreme Court, did precious little to reform an underperforming economy that only really works for the fabulously rich few.
Sharif preferred to spend his four years in power building flashy infrastructure projects of questionable utility. He did not take a great interest in education, even though millions of school-age Pakistanis do not receive any sort of schooling. On coming to power for the third time, in 2013, he tried to duck an essential military confrontation with the then rampant Pakistani Taliban.
But for all his shortcomings, Sharif was courageous and persistent in trying to correct the biggest of all Pakistan’s problems: an out of control army that believes it decides the national interest, not elected governments.
For roughly half of Pakistan’s coup-punctuated 70-year history, the generals have ruled directly. For the rest of the time, the army tightly controlled what civilian governments could do, especially in foreign affairs and defence policy. The results were disastrous. The army raised an army of jihadists to sow death and destruction in Afghanistan and India. The policy alienated the region and poisoned the minds of generations of Pakistanis reared in Islamist madrassas and training camps.
All the while, the military gobbled an outsize share of state resources and distorted whole sectors of the economy through a sprawling commercial empire involved in everything from baking cornflakes to building housing developments. The result is a debt-laden country with a shallow industrial base that is currently suffering year-on-year declines in export earnings. Pakistan is also perpetually on the cusp of being declared a terrorist supporting state.
The generals also kept Pakistan locked in an endless cold war with India, the giant neighbouring country they madly believe would like to undo the 1947 partition of the Subcontinent. Sharif was passionate about ending this unwinnable standoff with a country almost four times as large as his (Pakistan has lost all four of its wars and major conflicts with India). A businessman, Sharif appreciated the huge lost trading opportunities with a vast and culturally similar market just across the border.
For Sharif, it was also personal: in October 1999, his second government was toppled by Pervez Musharraf, the bumptious general who triggered an international crisis by attempting to grab a slither of high-altitude territory in Kashmir, the former princely state that opted to join India in 1947.
Sharif’s exile years in London and Riyadh sharpened his conviction that Pakistan’s generals must be sent back to their barracks. When democracy was restored in 2008, Sharif resisted the temptation to team up with the generals or the judges to try to prematurely oust the deeply unstable government. His patience was rewarded with a landslide victory in the 2013 general election.
On becoming prime minister he made a point of keeping the portfolios of defence and foreign affairs to himself – a signal these were now matters for the civilian leadership. Next, he took the extraordinary step of ordering a trial of Musharraf for treason, a capital offence. It was the first ever attempt to hold a former army chief accountable for his actions.
Sharif also refused to bow to pressure to extend the term in office of his first army chief Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani. Instead he picked the most obscure of the available candidates for the top job, a general called Raheel Sharif (no relation).
On every front, the army fought back and won. Bogus security and health scares were concocted to excuse Musharraf from appearing in court. After a series of battles with the government Musharraf was given compassionate leave to visit his supposedly sick mother abroad. As expected, he never returned.
General Sharif responded to the prime minister’s efforts to seize control of foreign policy by conducting mini state visits of his own to various world capitals. The army press office and platoons of anonymous cyber-warriors set about creating a personality cult around General Sharif, who was hailed as the country’s saviour after operations against the Pakistani Taliban proved successful.
Sharif’s hopes for peace-building with India, which included politically risky efforts to get close to Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, were also scuppered. Just days after Sharif triumphantly hosted Modi in his home town of Lahore on Christmas Day 2015, Pakistan-based jihadis plunged relations back into crisis by attacking an Indian air base in Kashmir, killing eight people. The blame was pinned on Jaish-e-Mohammad, a jihadi group weaned by Pakistan’s army.
Still Sharif persisted. In October last year, news was deliberately leaked to the press about an extraordinary showdown between Sharif, senior members of his party and Pakistan’s top brass. Trespassing deep into the military’s traditional realm, the civilians told the generals that their policy of harbouring anti-India and anti-Afghanistan jihad groups had to stop.
The army was furious and Sharif was eventually forced to sack two of his key lieutenants. In a vivid example of military self-regard, the army’s spokesman took to Twitter to “reject” a “notification” issued by the prime minister’s office that was intended to draw a line under the affair.
Given these rows it is not surprising most observers see the hand of the army in the Supreme Court disqualification of Sharif. The case was triggered by the leak last year of the “Panama Papers”, the trove of documents that revealed information about the financial affairs of the super-rich around the world, including Sharif, whose children were revealed to own Park Lane flats through off shore companies. But Pakistan’s judges are not immune to pressure from the army and two representatives of Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agencies were appointed to the special investigation team charged with getting to the bottom of the claims.
Their report was strikingly detailed and highly damaging for Sharif. Although it failed to prove Sharif was guilty of using his position to enrich himself it did unearth the relatively trivial detail that he had not declared a modest salary from a Dubai-based family company in his election nomination papers. It was on that rather feeble pretext that Sharif was disqualified, the victim of pseudo-Islamic clauses introduced into the country’s constitution by a military dictator in the 1980s requiring all MPs to be “truthful” and “righteous”.
Of all the blows to Sharif’s hopes of securing the supremacy of civilian rule, his ousting is the most shattering. Had he gone on to win next year’s election – as seemed likely – Sharif would have scored a couple of democratic firsts. He would have been the first prime minister ever to complete a full term without succumbing to a coup, assassination, presidential sacking or judicial disqualification. And he would have been the first sitting prime minister to have gone back to the people after a full term and been re-elected. The generals have never had to deal with a hostile civilian politician with such a strong mandate.
The party Sharif has run for three decades and which bears his name now risks splits and defections. That could benefit Imran Khan, the opportunistic cricketer-turned-politician who seems quite relaxed about the army’s traditional stranglehold on national affairs. He has made little secret of his willingness to cosy up to the army if it helps him to power. “The people will celebrate and distribute sweets if the army takes over,” he predicted last year.
There has been widespread public glee at the sight of a powerful politician brought low. But Pakistan may come to miss Nawaz Sharif, for all his faults.