Arrest and deportation of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the military rulers of Pakistan is a measure of their nervousness. If the high drama played on the Islamabad international airport – inside the flight 786 and in the VIP Lounge – was a part of a strategy, it exposed the ruling establishment'sinability to plan its moves with precision. The entire episode eroded General Musharraf'scredibility, or whatever was left of it, and exposed him as what he is – a power hungry dictator desperate to hang on to power by any means. Even while the ruling party chief Chaudhry Shujaat asked the Government to let the former Prime Minister come, stay and contest elections and boasted that PML (Q) would give the deposed Prime Minister a tough time in the coming elections, the establishment did exactly the opposite. It humiliated, arrested and then fraudulently put him on a plane to Jeddah without taking into account the public sentiment and the political fall out of this ugly development. The establishment obviously wanted to send across a message that no defiance of the army would be tolerated whatever the consequences. Coming as it were from the General who claims to be the ?most democratic? ruler of Pakistan raises questions about his commitment to public good. The General is unlikely to win laurels for digging out an extra-constitutional agreement between Sharif and Saudi Arabia to hound him out of the country. Musharraf look weaker after the developments. He has proved, once again, that he lacks the ability to politically deal with inconvenient political rivals. Using the might of the state is not the best way to resolve contradictions in a country that is inching towards democracy.
Pakistani establishment'sclaim that the former Prime Minister chose exile to spending time in a Pakistani jail and face prosecution on corruption charges does not wash. Sharif had returned to his homeland clear in his mind that he would have to face prosecution on what he says are ?false and fabricated? charges. He deliberately chose that option hoping that in the changed political climate, the judges would be more inclined to bail him out thereby allowing him an opportunity to lead his party in the coming elections. He calculated that even remaining behind the bars would make him a martyr and help him generate public sympathy. Sharif surprised even his followers by leaving his brother, Shahbaz, behind in London to ?take care of the situation? in case he was not allowed to be a free man in Pakistan. There may be other reasons. Shahbaz has a nasty court case pending in courts in which he is accused of extra-judicial killing. The high court had reprimanded the Government for allowing him to leave the country when he landed in Lahore from his exile way back in 2003. He might have thought it more prudent to remain in London and wait for a more opportune moment to return home.
PML (N) leader chose a politically and legally correct time to stage his return – albeit transitory – to his country after seven long years in exile. The political atmosphere is right for him what with growing popular resentment against army rule and parliamentary elections round the corner. An additional factor is the public displeasure over Benazir Bhutto'snegotiations with the General to strike a power-sharing deal. As it happens, it has deprived Benazir of the popular support she commanded earlier as her moves have disillusioned masses that want an early return of the army to barracks. Sharif made his strategic move to capture the moral high ground as a pro-democracy force after a rejuvenated judiciary allowed his petition to return to his homeland. The Supreme Court sidestepped the exile agreement by ruling that no one could contract out his fundamental rights granted by the Constitution even by his own volition. Former Interior Minister, Aitzaz Ahsan, who is likely to lead the charge as battle lines have been drawn between the judiciary and the military rulers, says the deportation flies in the face of the Supreme Court order and is a ?grievous insult? to the judiciary amounting to contempt of court. It is a cognizable offence as the apex court had said that no Pakistani citizen could be deported or even made to contract out of his fundamental rights under any agreement. Ahsan is emerging as a big player in the legal battles ahead. He was Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry'scounsel and won a legal battle supported by popular support in the form of mass demonstrations by lawyers all over the country. The Supreme Court recently appointed him as amicus curiae in a petition against Musharraf holding two offices – President and Army Chief.
Sharif is no paragon of virtue. Although he came to power for the second time with a massive mandate, he soon lost much of his popularity amidst charges of corruption and misadministration. There was no mass protest over General'scoup and the deposed Prime Minister'ssubsequent conviction by courts. His image suffered hugely when he fled the country under a secret deal seven years ago. Popular disenchantment with the army rule and Benazir'sfailure to judge the popular mood for democracy and civil rule has made him a symbol of resistance to army rule. The use of brute force to hound him out of the country is bound to win some public sympathy. Anti-American sentiments sweeping the country is yet another factor. What is worrisome is that a number of extremist groups and Islamic fundamentalists are part of the alliance the former Prime Minister has forged. And no one has forgotten that Sharif launched his political career with the help of military and ISI on shoulders of Pakistan'sIslamists. As of now, the choice appears to be between the devil and the deep sea.