The supergenerals have clinched the mother of all cynical deals with Nawaz Sharif. Having failed to knock him out politically, they have tried to wash their hands off him. But this highly discriminatory, good-riddance-to-bad rubbish policy will have repercussions long after its stench has evaporated.
The people of Pakistan see it as the mother of all betrayals. Betrayal of accountability. Betrayal of law and justice. Betrayal of national sovereignty. Betrayal of morality. It smacks of hypocrisy, opportunism, even criminality. The army’s stock was lower only in the aftermath of 1971. If the supergenerals don’t care a fig about public opinion, they should be wary at least of the rumblings in their own rank and file.
On the other side, we are reminded of Nawaz Sharif’s famous remark accompanied with the thump of a clenched fist ― “I won’t take dictation!” — which gave heart to many in 1993. But as he scurried to nocturnal safety in the arms of foreign potentates with not a thought for his suffering political colleagues or his bleeding party in his empty mind, we wonder whether Mr Sharif consoled himself with the self-serving rationale of one who, having deceived most of the people most of the time, expects to be able to deceive all the people all the time. Whatever fate may have in store for him, he has been revealed to all as the mouse that roared.
This unsavoury deal was in the making a long while. During General Pervez Musharraf’s first trip to Saudi Arabia only a week or so after he took over, the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bluntly interceded on Mr Sharif’s behalf, offering to pay Pakistan the money allegedly plundered by the Sharifs. Subsequently, the Saudis relentlessly pursued their objective through the good offices of Qatar’s foreign minister. When General Musharraf began to drag his feet, the Saudis jolted him by initially rejecting the nomination of a retired DG-ISI as ambassador-designate to Riyadh and then suggested to the finance minister Mr Shaukat Aziz that if General Musharraf wanted to benefit from Saudi largesse, the quid pro quo should be handed over to them. It appears that the Saudis have not forgotten how in 1991 during the Gulf war, while the then Pakistan army chief expressed pro-Saddam Hussain sentiment, Nawaz Sharif flew about the world mustering support for the House of Saud. Nor indeed when the world urged Mr Sharif not to test the nuclear bomb and offered inducements, he went ahead just as soon as he received a nod from the Saudi king. The fact is that the Sharifs’ love affair with the Saudis goes back a long way and Mr Sharif has never taken any major domestic or foreign policy decision without their say-so. In winning him a reprieve, the Saudis have paid for services rendered by Sharif at the expense of Pakistan.
The Americans, too, have welcomed Mr Sharif’s reprieve. And why shouldn’t they? They perceive him as one of the architects of the Lahore peace process with India and not as one of the perpetrators of the Kargil adventure. Indeed, there has always been a hint of self-reproach in their attitude towards his fate, with some people saying that he was emboldened to sack General Musharraf following a strong statement by a senior US state department official in late September 1999 to the effect that Washington would never condone a military coup in Pakistan. It has now been admitted that Washington has been in close communication with Riyadh over the matter of Mr Sharif’s release.
Our own reaction, once the bitter pill of betrayal has been swallowed, should be more circumspect. This “deal” may be a blessing in disguise. If it has eroded the myth of Nawaz Sharif’s invincibility, it has also shattered the military’s holier-than-thou political image in the eyes of the people. Indeed, the supergenerals have been revealed to be sinning mortals like the rest of us, with the “super” prefix wholly undeserved. Civil society should rejoice in this awakening. Perhaps the generals will now find a way of retreating to barracks where they belong.
Some people, however, fear that the opposite may be truer — that having got rid of the one political leader who was a spoke in their wheel, the generals mean to lord it over us for years to come. If that is their intent — for who can say whether we have seen the height of opportunism rather than its beginning — we would advise them to think again.
General Musharraf was a reluctant debutant to political power. Just as it was being whispered that he was the long awaited saviour, harsh reality shook him out of this reverie. He should be thankful for this windfall. And we should help him out of the political wilderness into which he has stumbled instead of criticising him for a desperately needed dose of realism. Nawaz Sharif’s departure should be a harbinger of renewed democratisation rather than increased militarisation. If the opposite comes true, General Musharraf will plunge headlong into trouble instead of exiting from it as required.