The empire strikes back

Pakistan’s deep state always works with a king’s party — as it did for the judicial coup against Nawaz Sharif

Updated - August 02, 2017 12:10 am IST

Published - August 02, 2017 12:02 am IST

Soldiers in the Dark

Soldiers in the Dark

Had Nawaz Sharif continued as Prime Minister till 2018, he would have created history by becoming the first Prime Minister to have completed a full five-year term in Pakistan’s 70-year history. As it happens, he still created history, though of a different sort. When he resigned on July 28, he became the only thrice elected Prime Minister who had his tenure cut short each time by ‘the empire’, or the deep state in Pakistan.


The Panama Papers leaks in April last year consisted of more than 11 million documents, from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, containing confidential attorney-client information dealing mostly with off-shore entities and bank accounts. Of these, eight pertained to Mr. Sharif, his sons Hassan and Hussain and his daughter and political heir Maryam.

These revealed four property purchases by the family in London in the 1990s, hardly a secret in Pakistan. Opposition leader, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, immediately dubbed it ‘Panamagate’ and demanded Mr. Sharif’s resignation.

As protests mounted, Mr. Khan threatened a ‘lockdown’ in Islamabad. The government imposed Section 144, setting the stage for a confrontation. The situation was similar to the 2014 protests, also led by Mr. Khan together with the cleric-turned-politician Tahir-ul-Qadri, alleging rigging in the 2013 elections that had brought Mr. Sharif to power for the third time. At that time, the army played a role in diffusing the situation. This time, the Supreme Court stepped in to announce the setting up of a five-member bench to hear a bunch of petitions filed by opposition politicians seeking Mr. Sharif’s disqualification on grounds of corruption.

On April 20 this year, the Supreme Court came out with a split verdict. Two of the judges felt that Mr. Sharif should be disqualified, but the majority view found the evidence insufficient and recommended setting up a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to examine the issue and submit a report within sixty days.

Establishment of the JIT was unprecedented in Pakistan’s judicial history. The team included officials from the Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau, State Bank of Pakistan, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, and interestingly, an officer each from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Military Intelligence. The 10-volume report, submitted to the Supreme Court on July 10 highlighted irregular movements of large sums of money in the form of loans and gifts between offshore entities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United Kingdom and recommended re-opening of a number of earlier cases while initiating a clutch of new inquiries.

The Supreme Court bench reconvened and this time, reached a unanimous verdict, disqualifying Mr. Sharif and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar (his son is married to Mr. Sharif’s daughter) and directing the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to initiate cases against them, together with Hassan, Hussain, Maryam and her husband Capt. Safdar. Further, NAB is to complete its task within six months, before the elections next year.

A judicial coup

Ironically, after all the investigations, the disqualification verdict is based on a technicality. Mr. Sharif stood disqualified for having violated Article 62 of the Constitution which specifies that any member of Pakistan’s National Assembly must be ‘sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and upright’, a provision that had been introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq. The verdict was based on the JIT discovery that Mr. Sharif had been Chairman of Capital FZE, a Dubai-based entity, from August 2006 to April 2014, at a monthly remuneration of 10,000 Dirhams, and this disclosure was missing in the asset declaration filed for the 2013 elections. The Supreme Court had therefore judged Mr. Sharif not to be ‘honest and upright’ and therefore ‘disqualified’ to be a member of the National Assembly. The defence lawyers had pointed out that the company belonged to his son Hassan, that Mr. Sharif had never drawn any remuneration, and the remuneration was notional, needed for the visa when Mr. Sharif was in political exile in the UAE. The Supreme Court interpreted differently; the amount was a ‘receivable’ and therefore ‘an asset’ that should have been declared!

The NAB will uncover many more skeletons, pertaining to money laundering and corruption, which could lead to imprisonment and fines unless Mr. Sharif is able to go into exile or do a deal. This is why he needs to keep control within the family. Former Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has been appointed interim Prime Minister for 45 days while Mr. Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz resigns from his position as Chief Minister of Punjab, enters the National Assembly and takes over as Prime Minister. In Punjab, there is talk that Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza, who is a member of the provincial assembly, will take over as Chief Minister. With 209 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, Mr. Sharif can call the shots as long as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML(N) rallies behind the family. At stake is the Sharif legacy compounded because of lack of clarity about whether the disqualification is permanent or for a finite period. Article 63, also introduced by Gen. Zia, provides for disqualification of an elected member for five years on grounds of ‘contempt of court’ (this was used to dismiss Yousaf Raza Gillani in 2012) but Article 62 does not specify any time frame.

The irony is that Nawaz Sharif had started his political career with the blessings of the army in the Zia days. He became the Chief Minister of Punjab in 1985 and the ISI helped him cobble together the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) coalition which won him his first term as Prime Minister in 1990. Since then, his differences with the Army and the ‘deep state’ have only grown. In 1993, amid increasing differences with Gen. Abdul Waheed Kakar, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed his government, but Mr. Sharif fought back, and the Supreme Court restored his position. The army then brokered a deal under which both he and the President resigned, ending his first stint. His second stint in 1997-1999 was more turbulent. The nuclear tests of 1998 encouraged him to respond favourably to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s peace overtures which were derailed by the Kargil conflict. His botched-up attempt to replace Gen. Pervez Musharraf led to the coup in 1999 and the exile for eight years.

Basic faultline

Like Generals Kakar and Musharraf earlier, Gen. Raheel Sharif too was his choice but differences emerged. The army had to dissuade him from going after Gen. Musharraf and he later blamed the army for encouraging Imran Khan’s agitational politics, aimed at weakening the PML(N) hold in Punjab, the largest province which accounts for 183 seats in the 342-member National Assembly. Panamagate was already unfolding when relations with the army worsened with the Dawnleaks incident last October for which the army held his office responsible. His Information Minister resigned and after a prolonged inquiry, his Adviser, Tariq Fatemi, too had to go. Differences on policy approaches with India and Afghanistan had become more pronounced. He wanted to claim credit for the projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to ensure his re-election in 2018. He had to go.

The ‘deep state’ has always worked with a king’s party, and there have always been politicians willing to oblige. Gen. Musharraf had encouraged Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain to set up PML(Q) to wean away Punjab during Mr. Sharif’s exile; Gen. Zia had helped form the PML(F) under Pir Pagara and later Mr. Sharif himself had been a beneficiary. This time, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf played the role of the king’s party and the Supreme Court legitimised the ouster. But he too is under investigation. Coups in Pakistan come in different forms and this was a judicial coup, of a judgment reached before the trial was done. But behind it is the ‘deep state’ which exposes the fundamental fault line in Pakistan, of building a state based on faith while denying its civilisational roots.


Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and presently a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. E-mail:

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