Comeback man Sharif up against screaming odds

His record third stint as prime minister would suggest Pakistan hasn't had a more pronounced comeback kid, but even Nawaz Sharif would know — even if he can't afford to admit it publicly — that he has once again scored an own goal under pressure.

The prime minister's bail-out statement in the Parliament on Friday that it was not him but Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Tahirul Qadri who sought the army chief's role to break the political deadlock backfired tremendously after the DG Inter-Services Public Relations — the PR wing of the army — tweeted that the khaki chief played the facilitator at the behest of the Sharif government.

It was left to Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the federal interior minister and a close Sharif aide, to do the damage control and even as he made a feeble attempt to suggest the tweet, in fact, backed the government's stance — and was vetted by him and approved by the PM prior to its outing — it did not quite cut ice in what seemed like the bucket challenge gone wrong.

For the beleaguered Sharif, the fallout in terms of political capital is already huge considering the only reliable support he had received until now was from the very Parliament where on the floor of the House he made the statement that has rebounded on him.

It is unclear why the PM resorted to spin that now looks decidedly clumsy, but there is an impression he may have done so in a desperate bid to wash off the stain that accumulated after news began circulating late Thursday evening that the Sharif government had sought the army's mediation.

For a PM who enjoys a solid two-third majority at the Centre and his party complete dominance in the powerful Punjab province, the very idea of seeking the help of the military — an entity he had until now been gradually trying to bring under his civilian control — is a body blow to the country's fledgling democracy.

The capitulation would appear to suggest Sharif fears that he may have already lost the battle of attrition and so instead of being seen to throw in the towel, he might as well go out in confrontation mode as a "political martyr" by giving the impression that he is being forced out.

In the case of a re-election, which given the tense current climate cannot be entirely ruled out, he would need a victim's sales pitch.

While little can be predicted with certainty about where the impasse will lead the country to, what is evident is that Pakistan is in the throes of a transition — even with the military's footprint lurking — where the old traditional power structure controlled by a powerful landowning and industrial elite is desperate to stop an emerging new order with a regular and relatively younger participatory mix roused by Khan.

The bottomline is that the traditional power structure has failed to deliver to the common man, who has been a spectator to self-aggrandizement of those who control the system.

The exclusion of a deeply deprived people has, in turn, led to the evolving pitch for change thumb-nailed by Khan and Qadri in different hues.

The PTI finds more resonance after it created a new wave in Pakistani politics and managed to make substantial gains in the last elections, which it accuses Sharif of winning by fraudulent means.

But the immediate trouble home for the prime minister is the one posed by Qadri's party, 14 of whose workers were killed and more than 90 injured when the Punjab government led by Sharif's brother Shahbaz used excessive force in a crackdown last June.

After more than two months, a First Investigation Report that names the chief minister has been lodged and if the probe goes through, it will have serious implications for the Sharifs, not just their immediate political future.

So how did Prime Minister Sharif get here, especially after many pundits were straining to suggest last year that he had wizened to the dangers of forces inimical to democracy?

An emboldened Sharif stepped on the toes of the military establishment with a slew of measures, including trying to ostensibly, bring former army chief Pervez Musharraf to justice for abrogating the constitution but more likely avenge his deposition by him in 1999; and attempting to wrest control of the foreign policy, especially opening up ties with India.

Closer to home, he is probably paying for taking lightly the threat of a crippling movement from an incensed Imran Khan if a verification of votes in four symbolic constituencies that he had been demanding for long was not facilitated.

Even though Sharif has conceded plenty, save for his resignation, since then, he may find there is plenty of time for regret.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely his and not of Times of Oman.


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