In Lahore’s Model Town, an unlikely contingent of guests trooped into the spiffy party office from where Nawaz Sharif runs his political campaign. Striding across the manicured green lawns in one single line, they were a cloudburst of colour. Magenta robes, saffron turbans, tailored black cassocks — religious representatives of Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities had come to meet the man they believe will be the country’s next Prime Minister. In full view of multiple cameras, priests, bishops, granthis and even a pandit warned against the violent discrimination that their communities have suffered at the hands of bigoted fundamentalists. They told Sharif he had their political backing but reprimanded him for not coming down hard on party workers complicit in the recent burning of churches in the city’s Joseph Colony.
The former Prime Minister listened quietly, took notes and did not demur at the criticism. The man who could have a bash at the country’s top political job for the third time was reminded of the nuclear bomb that was tested on his watch. “If you could build an atom bomb to protect us against India,” declaimed the pastor on stage, “why can’t you protect us against fundamentalists?” When Sharif finally spoke he quoted Punjabi Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah to make a point about religious amity. “Tear down the mosque; tear down the temple, tear down everything in sight. But don’t break anyone’s heart. Because God lives there.”
He may have been billed as a religious conservative in his previous avatar, but in this election Sharif has positioned himself differently. As he moves from the right to the centre of the political spectrum, many are asking whether the man who uses the tiger as his election mascot is changing his stripes.
His tumble from power in Musharraf’s infamous 1999 military coup, years in prison and enforced exile have made him much wiser say critics and aides alike. Former minister and party colleague Tariq Azeem, who switched parties just last year to join Sharif’s campaign has a theory. “Every Pakistani politician should have to spend a decade outside the country. They come back much smarter,” he quips, only half-seriously. Before she was assassinated, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were able to temporarily bury intense and historic rivalries in their years as banished politicians. Those years of political maturity made the shift in Pakistan’s politics possible.
Nawaz Sharif’s economic philosophy is clear; he is a free-market proponent who is promising to put muscle back into a floundering economy. His political ideology still remains somewhat ambiguous, leaving him open to the charge of being soft on militants. He has advocated a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, a virulent terrorist outfit that is allied with the al-Qaeda and is responsible for killing thousands of his countrymen.
This has been a source of public disagreement between him and Pakistan’s Army Chief. The Pakistani military will not negotiate with the Taliban unless its extremists disarm and “unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law,” asserted Kayani, just last month.
But the compelling question thrown up by a possible victory for Sharif is how it might impact the civil-military equations in Pakistan. If elected in a historic civilian to civilian transfer of political power next week, Sharif could represent the first serious challenge to the sovereign control Pakistan’s army has always had over the political nerve-centre.
Of course Sharif was not always on the other side of the trenches. He started off as a protégé of the much-disliked general-turned dictator Zia-ul-Haq. Twenty-five years later he is reminding citizens that it is the prime minister who should be the military chief’s boss; not the other way around.
At the meeting with religious minorities, Sharif remembered the dictator who transformed his opinion of how much power an army chief should wield. Suddenly, and without preamble or context, he introduced the Indian journalists present at the meet and insisted that they come on to the stage. Introducing us to the gathering, he lapsed into sentimentality about how India and Pakistan “used to be one country, with the same food, the same language, the same culture. It was a dictator who ruined the relationship in 1999.” Nawaz Sharif was prime minister when the Kargil war erupted as a result of Musharraf’s crazed misadventure, one that the General has refused to regret till this day. Not many in India are convinced that Sharif was entirely ignorant of the Army’s plans as he subsequently claimed. But enough Pakistanis make the argument that at least part of Sharif’s unpopularity with the Army is his soft stance towards India and his avowal to be the architect of his own peace process this time. He recently called for an inquiry into the Kargil fiasco, ruffling more than one feather in the security establishment.
Nawaz Sharif ended his effusive welcome to the Indian media with a public desire to visit soon, “if they invite me.” By Monday, his party is likely to emerge as the single largest formation. Yet, the murmurs in Pakistan are that he may still find it tough to cobble together a coalition. The reason, the whispers go, is that Pakistan’s army is less than fond of him. The cynics say the military would prefer a government of other combinations including Imran Khan — Sharif’s main challenger in Punjab — as a sort of safety valve for public anger, but one they feel more confident of managing. Khan, presently strapped to a hospital bed has always rubbished allegations of being patronised by the military.
But whatever the outcome, this is an election that could be a test case for whether a real transfer of power takes place. Not only from Asif Ali Zardari to Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan; but from the entrenched power of the military establishment to a genuine, if infant, democracy.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University’s India Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal