Ajaz Ashraf


When former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz landed in Lahore on July 13, Pakistan was agog with excitement. Nobody had expected them to ever return to Pakistan. After all, just a week ago, a court in Pakistan had convicted the two of corruption in connection with the purchase of luxury apartments in London. It had sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years in prison and Maryam Nawaz to seven years.


Their return, in many ways, represents defiance of the Pakistan Army, which was popularly perceived to have been behind their conviction. Predictably, both were whisked away to Islamabad and then jailed in Rawalpindi. Will their return boost the prospect of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the July 25 elections to the National Assembly, which is the popular House of Pakistan’s Parliament, and the four provincial Assemblies?


In recent weeks, the party has been dogged by defections, again allegedly engineered by the Army. But can it at least stop the Army’s favourite, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader and former cricketer Imran Khan, from becoming Pakistan’s next prime minister? What are the chances of the Bhutto family’s Pakistan Peoples Party? Beyond these questions is the perturbing development of the political mainstreaming of extremist religious parties, some of which are accused of fomenting terror attacks.


To analyse the impact of the elections on Pakistan’s democracy, Scroll.inspoke with Pervez Hoodbhoy, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Forman Christian College, Lahore. He has also been teaching at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, for 45 years. The recipient of many professional awards, Hoodbhoy was listed among the 100 most influential global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine in 2011. A keen observer of politics, Hoodbhoy’s articles are remarkable for their analysis and candour.


Excerpts from the interview:


Do you think it was brave of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter to return to Pakistan even though they knew they would be arrested for corruption and remain in prison for 10 years and seven years each?

Very brave, perhaps foolhardy. They are up against very determined foes – the Army, jihadis, the super ambitious Imran Khan – and may spend a long time in prison. But had they opted to stay away, Sharif’s political career and his party would have ended. Will they be able to eventually return to power? It is hard to say. Benazir Bhutto returned from exile – and paid for it with her life. Politics is a desperate gamble for power in Pakistan.


Do you think their return to Pakistan has triggered, or will trigger, a sympathy wave in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the July 25 elections?


I doubt mass protests will make much difference. The deep state has systematically dismantled Sharif’s party. Not only was he barred from ever contesting elections and sent to jail, a mysterious wave of desertions has also hit his party. Then there was the sudden appearance of “Jeep” candidates across the country – a symbol proclaiming closeness to the establishment. [Jeep candidates are independent candidates who have been given the jeep symbol].


Also sapping the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s strength is opposition from extremists and militants newly mainstreamed into political parties, and whispers that its candidates will run afoul of the “khalai makhlooq”. This is a term coined by Maryam Nawaz for the mysterious forces at work behind the scenes. A party that secured 166 seats in the 2013 elections now finds itself neck-and-neck with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which had won only 35 seats then.


Many think Maryam Nawaz’s decision to return to Pakistan is even more commendable than Sharif’s. Do we see it as a pre-emptive move to ensure she inherits the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leadership mantle in the future?


She is certainly spunky and has earned respect for carrying her head high in very trying circumstances. Of course, carrying the mantle is very much in the tradition of South Asian politics. How she became so rich without ever having held a job bothers me. And she is married to Captain (retd) [Muhammad] Safdar, who has been a great embarrassment to her and her father.


Why so?


For example, the man has breathed poison against the Ahmadis [a minority Muslim sect], a popular position to take with extremists. At times, it seemed he did this to spite his father-in-law, who took great political risk in saying they too are citizens of Pakistan and need to be treated fairly. A few months ago, Safdar moved – and had approved – a resolution in the National Assembly to rename the physics department at Quaid-e-Azam University after some minor, barely known Arab astrologer [Abu al Fatah Abdul Rehman Al-Khazini] of the 14th century. The man’s an idiot. He is in jail now for corruption, and that may not be a bad place for him.


How do you rate the chances of the Pakistan Peoples Party in the elections?


Very poor. Once a national party, it is now confined to Sindh. Under [Asif Ali] Zardari [during his tenure as Pakistan president], corruption and misgovernance peaked. Bilawal Bhutto [son of Zardari and Benazir Bhutto] is unlikely to get anywhere. He speaks no Sindhi, his Urdu is poor, and in spite of the Bhutto cult he has not established himself. The only reason for the party to exist at all is that there is a political vacuum in Sindh.


The Sharifs’ conviction is ascribed to the judiciary helping the Army to cut the former prime minister down to size. Is Imran Khan the Army’s candidate for prime minister?


Beyond a shadow of doubt, Imran Khan is the establishment’s man. Without its full, unstinting support he would be nowhere on the political scene. Just consider the fact that his dharna [protesting alleged rigging of the 2013 polls] in Islamabad in 2014 went on for five months, paralysing the city. But it received near 24-hour coverage from television channels – the same channels forbidden now to broadcast scenes of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) protests.


Imran Khan refuses to criticise any aspect of Pakistan’s foreign policy. He has also supported jihadists even as they committed atrocities on our people, and gave a Rs 300-million grant to the madrasa that produced [former Taliban supreme leader] Mullah Omar. Just a couple of days ago, he was gloating over Sharif’s downfall, saying it was deserving for one who is friendly with [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi.


To what extent will Imran Khan’s former wife Reham Khan’s sensational disclosures affect his image and electoral prospects, more so among the conservative or orthodox section of society as he had been projecting himself as a born-again Muslim?


Not much. A simple denial is good enough for his diehard followers. Just like Stormy Daniels was not able to make a dent in Donald Trump’s presidency, I suspect the same will happen here. [Daniels, a pornographic film actor and director, claimed she was paid money not to disclose her affair with Trump.]


Imran Khan is Pakistan’s Donald Trump. The same narcissism, the same disregard for moral values, the same hatred for liberals. You have to remember how he burst upon Pakistan’s political scene with his mammoth Lahore jalsa of 2011. With a lavish lifestyle and his playboy past neatly tucked away in some closet, the born-again Khan promised the moon as he cavorted on the stage, loudly praying towards Makkah for success. Reham Khan’s disclosures will be water off a duck’s back.


Why is Pakistan, unlike India, susceptible to Army rule, coups or controlling the levers of power? What structural reasons are there for the role the Army plays in Pakistan’s politics?


We must go back to the roots to understand this. The idea of Pakistan was the two-nation theory – that Hindus and Muslims could never live together. There does not seem to have been much thinking beyond that point, which is why [former president] General Zia-ul-Haq was so successful in turning Pakistan firmly towards Islamism. [Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali] Jinnah gave marvelous speeches and he made clear to the Pakistan Army that he was the boss, not them. But he never wrote down what he wanted, no draft constitution. And there was no one else in the Muslim League of much consequence besides Jinnah. When Jinnah died, there was confusion on which way to go.


India must give credit to [Jawaharlal] Nehru for keeping a lid on its generals. In a democracy, the Army should be subordinate and answerable to civilian authority, not the other way around. And so, immediately after Partition, Nehru ordered the grand residence of the Army chief to be vacated and assigned to the prime minister. This move carried huge symbolism: it said clearly who was the boss. I suppose this was because Nehru had actually thought through that India was to be a secular democracy.


Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta, who has reported on Pakistan extensively, wrote last week, “We need to first accept the complete pre-eminence of the Army in Pakistan’s polity. The Army is the only institution widely trusted. Anybody who tells you something else, is lying or another of those votaries of CBMs [confidence-building measures) that produce breezy junkets.” He also says the constituency of liberals is so small as to be negligible. How do you react to his view?


He has obviously not been talking to Sindhis, the Baloch, or the young men in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or Pakhtun Protection Movement. He is quite right about the Army being very powerful, but trust is another matter. Given how deeply the Army has penetrated the economy – which should be no Army’s business – and the scandalous allocation of huge tracts of precious land to the generals, Pakistanis are far from ready to trust them. As for liberals like me, we are small in number but greatly feared because moral legitimacy is on our side, not theirs.


Is the crackdown on media comparable to anything in the past? For instance, hawkers have been compelled not to distribute the Dawnnewspaper, journalists have been abducted by people wearing hoods. What is driving this crackdown?


One has not seen such determined gagging of television and the press since the days of General Zia-ul-Haq. The slant just before the elections is impossible to miss – all in favour of Imran Khan. Still, to emphasise the Army’s preferences, Director General, Inter-Services Public Relations [the media wing of the Pakistani Armed Forces], Major General Asif Ghafoor held a press conference on June 4 to praise the media for its positive role, to identify friend and foe among television anchors and journalists, and to criticise “anti-state” feelings on social media. Ominously, he referred to the Army’s ability to monitor individuals in cyber space.


In elections in India over the last three decades, people have had a choice between corruption and communalism. In Pakistan, the choice seems to be between corruption and Army rule, albeit through the backdoor.


Nawaz Sharif is not being punished for his corruption. Rather, he is being punished for challenging the deep state, particularly on the matter of jihadism and, to an extent, for his soft spot for Pakistan’s religious minorities. There are corrupt people all around – judges, politicians, and generals – who are thriving. But once you run afoul of those who wield the big stick, then there is trouble.


What is the way out of the binary of corruption and communalism, which too affects Pakistan?

Pakistan and India are not rule-based societies. We certainly trust religion, which is why mullahs and priests thrive in our countries. But we do not trust others around us unless they belong to our own tribe, howsoever tribe is defined. So we do not trust the government and, of course, we especially do not trust politicians, although we vote for them.


It is all about social trust or, rather, the lack of it. Corruption and trust are polar opposites. Trust is a value expressing belief that others are part of your moral community. It lays the basis for cooperation with people who are different from yourself. People who have faith in others are more likely to endorse strong standards of moral and legal behaviour. The way to deal with corruption is to have clear, transparent, effective governance. When that happens, people will begin to trust governments and each other.


The extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba has been allowed to field hundreds of candidates. What are their prospects? What does it presage for Pakistan’s democracy and the country’s relationship with India, which holds the group responsible for terror attacks on its soil?


With the Army’s encouragement, the Lashkar-e-Taiba launched its political party, the Milli Muslim League. In August, it made its debut in national politics with the bye-election to the Lahore NA-120 [or National Assembly-120] constituency. It ranked fourth, a surprising show for a new party. Milli Muslim League election posters vehemently denounced Nawaz Sharif as a traitor for seeking peace with India and carried pictures of [Lashkar-e-Taiba founder] Hafiz Saeed.


Then, there is that unforgettable video of the Pakistan Rangers director general handing out Rs 1,000 vouchers to followers of the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party, whose dharna had paralysed Islamabad in 2017. Their siege had the clear intent of weakening Sharif’s ruling party. So, it is pretty obvious what the Army wants. I wish I could persuade our generals that this is not the way Pakistan should be run.


The only way for India and Pakistan to prosper is to get along with each other, find some kind of accommodation on Kashmir, and develop healthy societies based upon secular, liberal and democratic values. Recent developments on both sides of the border are moving us further away from this.


How can the political class of Pakistan establish parity, if not supremacy, over the Army?


Our civilians will have to prove they are not the venal, corrupt lot they are made out to be. The Army steps in saying these politicians cannot be trusted. To counter this, governance will have to be improved. Public participation to this end must be actively sought. But just as importantly, the elected government must firmly insist that reliance on extra-state actors be ended. The Army should defend the borders; that alone should be its task.

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