Cannon to right of him, cannon to left of him, cannon behind him


Volley’d and thunder’d



As you can see, the title of my article is taken from a line in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Though the history of that skirmish that Tennyson’s poem refers to is different, the line is applicable to the situation that Nawaz Sharif has painted himself in: “Cannon to right of him, Cannon to left of him, Cannon behind him volley’d and thunder’d.”

You have to give Nawaz Sharif this: there has to be something about him that has propelled him to the prime minister’s office thrice, and there is no gainsaying that there won’t be more propulsions for him or his family. His first two terms were aborted by his own overreach, taking on those more powerful than he was. Yet there is a never-say-die attitude about him. Sure much of it has to do with luck and circumstance – many would say his good luck and our bad – but that he has staying power cannot be denied.

His staying power though is good in opposition but not in office. What he lacks is the ability to learn from mistakes. He thus condemns himself to repeat them. The most important lesson he hasn’t learned is recognising the limits of power and not inviting failure by unnecessarily taking on stronger adversaries, one suspects because not being truly democratic he regards himself a monarch and tries to gather all power in his office. When he is politically insensible, he becomes weaker. When he is legally insensible he becomes weaker still. He hasn’t learned that there are many ways to skin a cat. He hasn’t learned that a ruler must leave his emotions behind instead of being driven by them to make mistake after mistake. If he learns these crucial lessons, seemingly simple depending on one’s personality and mental makeup, he could finally prove to be a good prime minister. I say ‘finally’ because, though you never know, this might well be his final term, full or again aborted.

Nawaz inherited so many challenges when he became prime minister this third time that it would make anyone’s head swim. Why did he have to go and create even more unnecessary challenges? Death wish born of stupidity is an easy explanation. Question is: where did this death wish come from? Not from his genes, surely, because more often than not business people are masters at the art of survival, especially those whose families have migrated from place to place – his from Kashmir to Indian Punjab to Pakistani Punjab.

Nationalisation’s shock gave Mian Sharif the Joe Kennedy idea: political power and wealth accumulation are vital for economic security. This led them down the dark alley of corruption.

The thoughtless nationalisation of his family’s steel foundry by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto must have been a great shock to them all, including to a young Nawaz, still in his twenties. That is understandable. When his family migrated from India to Lahore it continued its steel business. Nawaz’s late father Mian Muhammad Sharif, along with his brothers, set up a steel smelting business at the most basic level – hole in the ground furnace working with their hands, just like your typical ironsmiths of old. They lived in middle class dwellings in an old area of Lahore. The elder Sharif was very hardworking, which led eventually to the establishment of ‘Ittefaq Foundries Ltd’. They did well, achieved upward economic mobility and relocated to better dwellings. Sadly, they didn’t achieve significant upward educational mobility, regarding it instead, like many other businessmen, a not-so-important luxury unfit for the hurly burly of doing business in a Third World country where who you know counts, not what you know.

Nawaz did attend Lahore’s Government College. One who knew him then wrote me a long letter saying that Nawaz wasn’t a diligent student and looked down on those with English – an obvious defence mechanism, running down that which you don’t have. It didn’t occur to him that learning English better than anyone else was the best defence, not looking down on those who have the language. It was probably in GC that he started feeling comfortable in the company of yokels who reinforced his inferiority complexes and prejudices. Nawaz first tried his hand at acting and then cricket but failed in both. An acceptable club cricketer at best, he played for the Railways first class team where, according to Imran Khan, he bribed the coach with a Vespa scooter to get in – first signs of corruption, the money can buy anything syndrome. His zenith as a cricketer was to open the batting for the Chief Minister’s XI against the West Indies when he was Punjab’s chief minister. He faced the fearsome Courtney Walsh (90 mph) who couldn’t care less who he was and was out second ball, much to Imran Khan and Javed Miandad’s relief because they feared he might get badly injured or even die. Imran and Miandad also played in the team because, according to Imran, Nawaz wanted history to record that he captained these two Pakistani greats. Imran tells the story with great gusto and will bear me out if asked. Actually, he will tell the story much better. No matter, boys will be boys and one cannot lampoon Nawaz for his dreams. We all have dreams else we wouldn’t be human. But sensible people know their limitations and don’t dream impossible dreams after they grow up – unless they fall in love, of course.

Nationalisation’s shock gave Mian Sharif the Joe Kennedy idea: political power and wealth accumulation are vital for economic security. This led them down the dark alley of corruption.

Like Joe Kennedy who hankered after fame and power for safety and clout, Mian Sharif also put his sons in politics. Nawaz joined Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s ‘Tehreek-e-Istiqlal’ (now merged with Imran Khan’s PTI). At the time, Asghar Khan was ‘it’. But it was not to be and when the Sharifs realised that the Air Marshal wouldn’t make he didn’t linger. Mian Sharif put Nawaz to contest a local election from Model Town, Lahore. I don’t remember if he won or not. Later he took the son to meet the Punjab supremo General Gillani, who presented him to General Zia. Nawaz was made Punjab’s finance minister. The rest is history. Whether there was any greasing of palms I don’t know. It is fatal to believe each and every rumour in this country, even with double and triple checking. The lesson was again driven home to young Nawaz that without oodles of money you couldn’t get anywhere. Honesty is for fools. Only those unburdened by principles and morality make it. The rich get power, clout and societal respect because here people worship the proverbial golden calf and don’t worry about how that wealth was acquired. The honest are stupidly burdened by principles and don’t make it. Power and wealth are the only measures of success.

Third time, Nawaz must feel like a monarch of everything he surveys. Everyone has to be his loyal subject and serve his every will and whim.

Nawaz Sharif became yet another child of military rule, as Bhutto had been before him. From provincial minister he rose to chief minister then prime minister, once, twice and now thrice. However, Bhutto’s People’s Party still leads the field with four terms in office. People with Nawaz’s kind of history normally learn the art of self-survival very well. They don’t make unnecessary enemies. If an enemy becomes inevitable, they also know how to crush him. Or they neutralise him because they know the art of peacemaking. Nawaz learned the art of survival outside power very well, but not while in power. Bhutto knew how to crush enemies but even he didn’t know when to stop and went an enemy too far. The word for it is ‘overboard’ born of hubris. Nawaz, rived by hubris, went overboard twice before as prime minister, crossed the limits of his power and unnecessarily turned his own into enemies.

After his father’s death Nawaz seems anchorless and unregulated. Back in power he is surrounded by much the same old coterie – the weighed, measured, and found wanting, people without the wisdom to guide him properly through our political jungle, like rustic intellectuals with a good turn of phrase but not much sense. Other Pakistani rulers have suffered the same predilection, but Nawaz’s predilection is uniquely monarchical.

Third time, Nawaz must feel like a monarch of everything he surveys. Everyone has to be his loyal subject and serve his every will and whim. The monarch becomes intolerant of dissent and even more intolerant of good advice if it runs counter to his scheme of things. Nawaz probably heard and absorbed too many legends of Mughal kings during his childhood. The army could have been his most powerful friend yet he has made it his most powerful enemy. He seems to have concluded that if he neutralises the army and makes it his handmaiden he and his progeny would rule Pakistan till kingdom come. He doesn’t realise that if he rules well and gives the people what they want the army wouldn’t dare lift a finger against him. It needs good reason to do so and rulers shouldn’t provide it.

Today, Nawaz has got cannon to left of him, to right of him and behind him. These cannons are Imran Khan, Dr Qadri and the army. If only Nawaz had agreed to a recount in four constituencies that Imran demanded he would not have become a cannon. If only he hadn’t wasted time by holding bootless talks with the Taliban, the army wouldn’t have been a cannon behind him. If only he hadn’t overreacted to Qadri’s second coming by massacring his people in Lahore and then hijacking his plane to Lahore but had let him land in Islamabad and go in procession to Lahore, there wouldn’t have been a cannon to right of him. Now, after Ramazan’s uneasy calm, one is left waiting with trepidation for the coming storm. Nawaz Sharif has painted himself into a corner in which Nawaz and his opponents cannot coexist. One or the other will have to go. What a pity. If he is sent packing he will become a political martyr and rise again. If he completes his term he will trash himself like Zardari, though not the People’s Party, has and that will be that.

If this piece sounds like something of an obituary I don’t mean it to. I wish Nawaz Sharif well. If he has to lose, he should lose politically, not any other way.


  1. I do hope that it proves to be his final obituary both politically as well as him personally along with all and whatever and whoever belongs to this sob.

  2. A typical shameless article from a hidden sympathizer of the POTian brigade with gossip mongering thrown in on NS's personal life. Looks like the author is so jealous of Nawaz Sharif's staying power. We the people of Pakistan love him and believe in his development agenda. Empty Cannons (TUQ, IK, Remnants of Musharraf Tola) whether in the Front, Back, Left or Right will not hurt him.

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