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The Importance of Being Nawaz Sharif

The Importance of Being Nawaz Sharif

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

The two-time former prime minister of Pakistan has figured very little in stories of the turbulence in his country over the past few weeks. While Benazir Bhutto is playing a strident role on the political stage back home, and her People's Party of Pakistan (PPP) has set out on a "long march" from Lahore to Islamabad, we are still waiting for reliable news about the return of Nawaz Sharif from his exile in Jeddah.

This, however, may not mean Nawaz, the 58-year-old leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), also known as the PML (N), has no place in the power restructuring ahead in Pakistan. He may, in fact, even have a role in scenarios scripted far from Pakistan's troubled shores.

It has been said Sharif will attempt a return again sometime between November 15 and 30. PML (N) spokespersons have said the party had decided on this date because it expected "a neutral caretaker government" to be in place in the country during this period to prepare for the general election scheduled for the first week of January.

The reason for the decision was cited before President Gen. Pervez Musharraf made it clear the emergency imposed by him on the country would not be lifted as, in his opinion, it would actually facilitate the holding of a free and fair election. It was hard to envisage the coexistence of the emergency or martial law with "a neutral caretaker government." It has not become any easier to do so after Musharraf's naming of businessman Irashad Ullah Khan as the head of a caretaker regime to take over on November 15.

President George Bush, still the chief patron of Musharraf, has kindled hopes in some hearts by calling for the lifting of the emergency before the election. The general has rejected the call, reiterating that the emergency was the need of the electoral hour. Bush, however, has not embarrassed his "anti-terror ally" by specifying the campaigning period that should be permitted for contending parties. Nor has he publicized as yet any interest in the return of prodigal Sharif.

The PML (N) set the tentative date for Sharif's comeback after his ignominious deportation back to Saudi Arabia within hours of his earlier homecoming, attempted on September 10. Few observers believed the harsh and humiliating treatment meted out to Sharif, in violation of a clear ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court allowing his return, would have been possible without some kind of a consultation with Washington and its consent.

The deportation then appeared part of a Bush-scripted drama that was to end in the triumph of a troika - Musharraf, Bhutto and army chief designate Ishfaq Pervez Kiyani. But there was nothing to show this would be the final scene in the drama.

Bhutto might be Washington's civilian candidate in the current Pakistani phase. But few would again believe Sharif has stayed without any link with Washington for seven long years as the guest of the Saudi Arabian royalty, the most obscurantist and oppressive Middle East regime that has also doubled as Bush's staunchest ally in a crusade for democracy in the region.

It is curious some of the most ardent fans of Bush in the subcontinent have been advocating Sharif's cause. It is curiouser some of them are advocating it as the cause for a politician who would not compromise with Washington. As a security expert who gave unstinted support to the US-India nuclear deal puts it, Sharif "never fawned on the US." The PML (N) leader has also been praised sky-high for refusing to "compromise" with either Musharraf or Bhutto.

The claim is very much open to question. Bhutto has questioned one part of it by repeatedly recalling the story about Sharif's signed pact with Musharraf in 2000, which enabled the former prime minister to set off to his "palace" in Jeddah "with forty suitcases." And Sharif was not a mere spectator if Bhutto was part of a Washington attempt to bid for a civilian-military solution in Pakistan. He kept in touch with the PPP leader through the earlier phase of the process and signed a Charter of Democracy with her in London on May 16, 2006.

Subsequently, while publicly disapproving Bhutto's deal and dealings with Musharraf, Sharif has continued to engage in a dialogue with her. He can claim some success after persistently pressing her to give up talks with Musharraf, though she has taken care to specify she is only "suspending" them. His PML (N) lieutenants claim he has said no to "some Arab friends" trying to arrange talks with Shujaat Hussain, president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) or the PML(Q), as a proxy for the general.

None of them, however, have denied reports Musharraf has reopened talks with Sharif through a businessman emissary - and that the general himself may visit Jeddah for a one-to-one discussion preceding a deal.

As for his allegedly uncompromising relations with Washington while in power, the claim is founded solely on the ground of nuclear weapons tests he ordered in the wake of India's tests in 1998. He has continued to boast that he ordered the tests, despite then President Bill Clinton appealing to him against them five times. Sharif does not mention Bhutto forced him into ordering the tests with a fiercely jingoistic campaign. Nor do his supporters recall the withdrawal of all US sanctions against Pakistan in retaliation against the tests after the emergence of Musharraf as a most-favoured "anti-terror ally".

Sharif himself has more than hinted at a place for him in the unfolding Pakistani scenario of no secret scripting. In a less noticed part of a recent telephonic interview to an Indian journal, he spells this out: "Washington's response to Musharraf's emergency must be much stronger. I get a strong sense that he's reached a stage with America where he believes enough is enough. After all, the aid to Pakistan is peanuts. When that happens, the US will only have two people they can turn to, the only alliance they can support - a Benazir-Nawaz alliance."

He is reported to have laughed after saying this. Was he almost saying the last laugh would be his?

Sharif, of course, will lose one of his current advantages if he enters into such an alliance with Bhutto under Washington's sponsorship. He cannot then claim to be untainted by a dialogue with the Devil. Critics of Bhutto's "compromise" have spared him so far. One notable example, Imran Khan, Pakistan's former cricket captain and founder president of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), a distant third among the country's pro-democracy parties, has mocked Bhutto's "mock fight" with Musharraf but remained scrupulously silent on Sharif and his political moves. Sharif won't enjoy such immunity from criticism after entering into an alliance with Bhutto under Washington's auspices.

The cynicism of such power politics, or its power-sharing variant, may provoke the indignation of Imran Khans of Pakistan. But it is still possible to see such an alliance as a political necessity at the present moment. Sharif and Bhutto may be opponents in the coming election, but the more important battle in the country today is between electoral democracy and military rule.

And the fortunes of this battle, in the final analysis, will be decided not by individual political leaders, but by the people who have been making it all happen for the past month or so in the streets of Pakistan.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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