By all accounts, Imran Khan seems to have been ousted from the position of Pakistan PM that he held for four years because of disenchantment with him on part of the country’s military establishment which has controlled the levers of power there ever since it came into inception in 1947.
The very fact that he rose to the post in 2018 despite his party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) falling short of complete majority in National Assembly, was attributed to its covert support for his candidature after the then PM Nawaz Sharif was made to exit the scene following disqualification from office and conviction in a corruption case in the Panama Papers exposé.
This was widely seen as a direct repercussion of Nawaz Sharif’s fall out with the military establishment which clearly does not take kindly to politicians – whom it allows to rule as a proxy – to grow too big for their shoes.
Besides doing away with his chief political opponent, its support for Imran Khan manifested in different ways. During the 2018 election campaign, media outlets reporting critically against his political outfit had their distribution curtailed, while some candidates were said to have been cajoled or coerced into joining his party.
Imran Khan’s relationship with Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, however, began to fray the very next year, when the latter’s tenure came up for extension in 2019. Khan was perceived to have muddied the waters and the matter ended up in Pakistan Supreme Court.
Then, in October, 2021, Khan declined to sign-off on an order relieving Lt Gen Faiz Hameed – who had begun to fancy himself as a successor to Gen Bajwa – from the coveted post of DG, ISI. He finally relented after three weeks, but he had clearly damaged his political prospects irreparably by then vis-à-vis the support of the armed forces. The opposition smelt blood and reportedly began plotting the no-confidence motion against the PTI government, finally achieving its objective on April 9.
As per a media report, Pakistan’s military establishment had at that time itself sent feelers to Nawaz Sharif, living in exile in London, that he was needed in Pakistan, notwithstanding the fact that he is an absconder from justice and faces non-bailable arrest warrants the moment he sets foot in the country.
Nawaz Sharif and younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, the latter elected as Pakistan’s new Prime Minister on April 11, are consummate businessmen and politicians who’ve earned billions over decades in tandem with Pakistan’s all powerful military establishment.
According to the ‘Panama Papers’, which refer to documents leaked in 2016 from law firm Mossack Fonseca, Nawaz’s family holds millions of dollars worth of property and companies in the UK and around the world. Although they did not name Nawaz Sharif or his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif, they linked the latter’s in-laws and the children of Nawaz Sharif to numerous offshore companies.
In April 2016, the Pakistan government announced investigation by an inquiry commission of all Pakistanis named in the documents, with the then Army chief General Raheel Sharif intervening personally with a warning that “across-the-board accountability” was needed.
After a trial, Nawaz, serving his third term as Pakistan’s PM, was disqualified from holding public office in July 2017 for “dishonesty in not disclosing his employment in the Dubai-based Capital FZE company in his nomination papers”. The court also ordered National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to file a reference against Nawaz and his family on corruption charges.
Subsequently, in April, 2018, Pakistan Supreme Court ruled that Nawaz stood permanently disqualified from holding public office.
Three months later, in July, 2018, the Federal Judicial Complex of Pakistan sentenced him to ten years in prison, even as his daughter Maryam Nawaz and her husband Safdar Awan were given prison sentences of seven years and one year respectively.
Nawaz was granted bail in 2019 on humanitarian grounds for treatment in London, from where he has, since, failed to return.
Interestingly, his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif – who has served as Chief Minister of politically-crucial Punjab province for three terms and ascended to the position of president of PML (N) and leader of opposition in National Assembly in 2018 – was arrested in September 2020 in a Rs 25 billion money laundering case. NAB alleged that Shahbaz’s family had assets of around Rs 16.5 crore till 1990, which increased to over Rs 700 crore in 2018 that were disproportionate to his known sources of income. He stepped out of prison after being granted bail in April, 2021.
Incidentally, a plea fled by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency seeking cancellation of his bail was rejected on April 4 this year, even as the political situation in the country tilted in favor of the opposition.
The Sharif family’s spectacular success in business was well documented in a book titled Who Owns Pakistan written by Pakistani journalist Shahid-ur-Rehman. Among other things, Rehman pointed out that after Nawaz Sharif served as prime minister in the 1990s, Pakistan went through a wave of privatisation and tweaked a number of policies dressed up as economic liberalization. Rehman contented these moves were made merely to strengthen various industrial houses, especially the Ittefaq Group holdings of the Sharif family, which gained the most from them.
According to the book, Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, quietly took their business to new heights even as their extended family members got embroiled in litigation over legacy issues. Besides their steel business, the family acquired property in the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and in Pakistan as well as agriculture-related concerns like poultry feed and other assets.
The Sharif group’s website claims they are worth $300 million in business and $100 million in real estate holdings.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, Nawaz is the one of the wealthiest men in Pakistan, with an estimated net worth of at least USD $1.6 billion.
It is an open secret that Pakistan’s military establishment is as much a business entity as it is a fighting force. In July 2016, the Pakistani senate was informed that the armed forces run over 50 commercial entities worth over $20 billion. Ranging from petrol pumps to huge industrial plants, banks, bakeries, schools and universities, hosiery factories, milk dairies, stud farms, and cement plants, the military has a finger in each pie and stands today as the biggest conglomerate of all business in Pakistan.
The ‘jewels in their crown’ are eight housing societies in eight major towns where prime lands in well-manicured cantonments and plush civil localities in the possession of these societies are allotted to military personnel at highly subsidised rates. Even military awards are linked with the grant of farm lands and housing plots to military personnel.
The country’s military also established several foundations ostensibly to help retired service personnel. These institutions virtually penetrated into all sectors of the economy and gradually propelled the military into a major business stakeholder in Pakistan’s economy.
This phenomenon has been incisively detailed in a book titled Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, penned by noted social scientist and author Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, which discusses Pakistan military’s economic empire and its political, economical and social effect on the country. The author used the term ‘Milbus’ to refer to “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defense budget.” She put the cost of this Milbus to at least $20 billion.
Even though Nawaz Sharif is technically a fugitive from justice and was disqualified by Supreme Court for life from holding public office, this may not stand in the way of his making a comeback now that his younger brother is the premier of the country, with the tacit support of the Pakistani military establishment, of course.
While announcing the decision to ‘permanently’ bar him from holding public office under Article 62 (1)(f) of Pakistan’s Constitution, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed, a member of the bench who wrote an additional note in the judgment, while addressing concerns that the lifetime ban “may be disproportionate and a little harsh”, maintained that such arguments were more suitable to be held in the parliament, rather than before the court.
“This aspect of the matter is rather ironic as several persons before us were or had been the Members of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) at some point of time and may have passed the amendments, which now stand in their way,” he wrote.
As such, nothing stops the government of the day which has majority in the Parliament to bring about an amendment now to let Nawaz Sharif off the hook.
At the end of the day, money power rules the roost in the Indian sub-continent and corruption is endemic. The Milbus and the Sharif family have clearly reached an agreement to sit down for business once again. Shehbaz Sharif, or Nawaz Sharif, will remain in power until the Milbus decides they are no good, at which point it would create circumstances that usher in another candidate.
This is not to suggest that the Imran Khan-led government was white as driven snow by any means. The opposition has alleged that Farah Khan, a close friend of Bushra Bibi, Khan’s third wife – who flew out of the country on April 3 when the government’s fall seemed imminent, evidently to evade arrest – received a huge sum of money for getting officers transferred and posted according to their choices, calling the scam “the mother of all scandals” amounting to PKR 6 billion.
Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, who is vice president of Pakistan Muslim League (N) claimed that the woman has done this corruption at the behest of Imran Khan and his wife.
Opposition leaders and activists shared a photo on Twitter of Farah Khan travelling luxuriously, with a designer bag kept by her side grabbing attention. Many users said that the bag was from French fashion house Hermes and cost a whopping $90,000.
There are concerns that Imran Khan himself, besides those who served as ministers and top officials in his regime, too may try to flee Pakistan and seek refuge in the Middle-East or Europe, and petitions have been filed in courts to put them on the exit control list to preempt that. The FIA issued such orders against six powerful individuals on Monday evening even as Shehbaz Sharif was elected unopposed as Pakistan’s Prime Minister.
Quite clearly, the more things change in Pakistan, the more they remain the same.
(Views are personal)