Past edicts by founding fathers of nations have a way of hovering sepulchre-like over the present. Here is Muhammad Ali Jinnah writing to his friend, M A H Ispahani, the Pakistani diplomat and legislator, in 1945: “Corruption is a curse… amongst Muslims, especially the so-called educated and intelligentsia. Unfortunately, it is this class that is selfish and morally and intellectually corrupt. No doubt this disease is common, but amongst this particular class of Muslims it is rampant.”
Mr Jinnah, a self-made and wealthy barrister, with a client list that was the envy of his peers, knew a thing or two about jiggery-pokery in high places. As a shrewd investor, he possessed a portfolio of valuable properties, and even shares in Air India, but was never touched by the taint of corruption. When he left India in 1947 he sold his impressive mansion in Lutyens’s Delhi for exactly what he had paid for it (Rs 300,000) nine years earlier. He had no wish to profit personally from a country he was leaving behind.
The Quaid-e-Azam’s probity was not inherited by his political descendants in the Land of the Pure. Most leaders in Pakistan, civilian or military, have enriched themselves and their families beyond measure though the affliction is hardly unique in the subcontinent. The arrest of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Sharif by an anti-corruption court (after they had already been barred from holding office) is utterly specious on election-eve, like cornering a big fish with a leaky net.
Moreover, catching him on his family’s holding of some posh flats in London is small change. As a billionaire-politician and brains behind the rise of Ittefaq Industries steel conglomerate, Nawaz Sharif’s net assets grew from Rs 166 million in 2011 to over Rs 1 billion in 2017. The novelist Mohammed Hanif put it like this: "If Sharif wasn't from the dominant province Punjab, where most of the army elite comes from, if he didn't represent the trading and business classes of Punjab, he would still be begging forgiveness for his sins in Saudi.”
The three-time prime minister’s suzerainty of Punjab (where his younger brother Shehbaz was chief minister from 2013 till two months ago) and spread of money power are part of the bone that sticks in the gullet of Pakistan’s military establishment. The big bit is the challenge he poses to the supremacy of the generals. Deconstructed, the history of Nawaz Sharif is his fluctuating relations with the overlords of the Rawalpindi cantonment.
If one general, Zia ul-Haq, made Mr Sharif’s fortune, his successors — mainly Pervez Musharraf — hated him. If Gen. Musharraf had his way after taking over in the coup d’etat of 1999, he would have sent him to the gallows like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. King Fahd saved Nawaz Sharif by negotiating his exile to Jeddah. But the army neither forgot nor forgave.
His stay in Saudi was roughly co-terminus with that of Benazir Bhutto’s exile in Dubai on corruption charges including a vast overseas estate amassed by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who, in his get-rich-quick days, was nicknamed “Mr Cent Per Cent”. If Benazir hadn’t been assassinated in late 2007 Mr Sharif’s PML (N) party would have been in the doldrums.
But such are the quirks of politics that, from being relegated to the doghouse, he became top dog again.
And now? Can Nawaz Sharif return and whip up a sympathy vote to wrest proxy power again in the election on July 25?
In October 2016 Cyril Almeida, the Dawn columnist, broke the story of a showdown between Mr Sharif’s government and the generals (over anti-terrorist operations) that proved a flashpoint in the escalating confrontation. Both sides denounced the scoop as fabricated though Dawn stoutly defended his account as “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”. For a time Mr Almeida was gated from leaving the country.
Mr Almeida is a soft-spoken Rhodes scholar and lawyer-turned-journalist. When I met him on his first visit to Goa in 2012 (from where his family had migrated to Karachi many decades earlier) he remarked how much he enjoyed listening to Konkani and regretted his inability to speak it.
Cyril Almeida’s writing is notable for its prescient, trenchantly expressed analysis and ironic style. This week in Dawn he argues how, should he return, Nawaz Sharif will find the odds stacked against him: “The Supreme Court [is] packed with future chief justices as far as the eye can see who have already declared Nawaz disqualified for life; a military high command that is virtually hardwired to regard him with suspicion or loathing; and a parliament and federal government stuffed with his political enemies.”
Pakistan’s democracy is about to be put to the test. The generals couldn’t care less about political corruption, being complicit themselves. Coup d’etats are out of fashion — not only problematic to execute with the unstoppable use of social media but infected with the nasty odour of international opprobrium. Their only desire is backroom control. Imran Khan, anyone?