With the unexpected removal of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan has maintained its unenviable record of not permitting any Prime Minister to complete his or her term of office.
Sharif himself had been earlier removed from the PM’s position on more than one occasion, only to regroup, return to the political arena, and reclaim the job. This time, however, nobody anticipates yet another turn of fate that would bring him back. He himself seems to have acknowledged that the curtain has fallen definitively on his political ascendancy.
And yet, in a twist that his opponents may not have anticipated, he has been able to pass the baton to his brother Shahbaz ~ he has to go through the process of being elected to the National Assembly, being at present member of the Punjab State Assembly, whereafter he can be expected to assume leadership of the PML (N), the ruling party in Islamabad, and take over as Prime Minister.
The judicial verdict that precipitated this series of events has not impressed some observers. They have said that the investigation of the wrongdoing attributed to the deposed Prime Minister had been less than thorough, and the judges had been unduly influenced by the media clamour. But despite the shortcomings there can be no disputing the outcome, for Sharif has been toppled and has had to yield the power that until just a few days ago was his to dispense.
With that have followed a number of consequences that may be relevant now and in the future, and although Sharif was a popular politician who enjoyed a strong position in his country’s Parliament, there is little sign of public dismay or agitation at the turn of events.
Within Parliament, there is no evidence of cracks in the ruling party that would encourage ambitions among aspiring successors; on the contrary, the PML (N) would appear to have retained its coherence so as to permit the former leader to nominate his successor. To that extent, notwithstanding the circumstances in which it was enforced, the transition has been a relatively smooth affair.
Yet questions at this way of proceeding are inevitable and will no doubt continue to trouble Pakistan. The role of the Supreme Court is very much in focus at the present.
On earlier occasions too it has been ready to intervene in the political domain, and its activism can create unanticipated situations with long-term consequences. Pakistan has from the start suffered from the stunted development of its instruments of democratic governance ~ starting from the same point at the same time as India, with a common heritage of institutions and practices, it has failed to keep pace with its neighbour, and on the contrary has suffered a series of setbacks that have blighted its democratic aspirations.
How far an activist Supreme Court can permit the other major instruments of state to function within their respective spheres remains to be seen, especially after the ousting of Sharif by legal fiat.
The part played by the army in this crisis cannot but be a matter of compelling interest. Its repeated interventions over the years and its historical success in carving out a position for itself above and beyond the rest of the official apparatus are overshadowing developments in Pakistan’s political sphere.
During these recent events the army has held its peace, deeming perhaps that there was nothing to be gained through intervention and it was wiser to let events take their course without drawing in the armed services. Even so, there is no shortage of conviction that such a decisive event could not have been possible without the sanction, or at least the acquiescence, of the army.
The role of the army has, inevitably, come under scrutiny, and even though direct evidence may be scanty, some commentators have expressed the view that the army has not been far removed from the recent events. During his time, Sharif had on occasion crossed swords with the army and had not been able to prevail in matters where his choice went against the wishes of the military establishment. Such episodes, it is believed, left a residue of doubt and ensured that Mr Sharif never became the favourite of the army.
By contrast, the new Pak PM-designate Shahbaz Sharif, is described as being closer to the army and to have developed better ties with them ~ having been Chief Minister of Punjab for so long, the main centre of military recruitment, he can be expected to have developed better links with the military brass.
This can only be a matter of speculation at this stage but such thoughts from some observers indicate that the new incumbent may come in with a favourable initial wind behind him. Nor is there any important opposition from major civilian leaders. Not so long ago, Imran Khan and his supporters, apparently with army backing, virtually shut down life in Islamabad to promote their political cause. But Khan has not been much in the picture at this present time of decision and change.
The insistent call for an end to corruption that brought him much public support and spread to the streets is not voiced in similar fashion now. Nor has the Supreme Court’s decision sparked the public manifestations and demands for clean public life as were seen earlier. Seen from afar, the developments in Pakistan have been received more with resignation than anything else.
There have been many uncertainties in its domestic affairs even before the Supreme Court gave its judgment, and there can be little expectation that what has now happened can bring a halt to the many damaging issues of internal management that have taken such a toll in that country. Change of leadership by itself will not solve problems, and Mr Nawaz Sharif had been on the scene for so long that other leaders elsewhere may take a little time to adjust to his successor.
This is especially the case so far as India is concerned. Though relations between the two countries are greatly disturbed on account of Pakistani support for terrorism, a tenuous stability in the relationship has been maintained. At a minimum, India can hope for maintenance of this status quo, without having to deal with adventurous policies by new leaders in Islamabad. India has always considered that a democratic neighbour is better than a military-led one.
It is thus to be hoped that the new incumbent will quickly settle into his new responsibilities.
Though no significant change in relations can be anticipated, continued civilian rule may offer a better prospect for the improved ties that India has been seeking.
(The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary)