Nawaz Sharif’s falling act


Will it be his finest?


One of the famous Jerry Seinfeld routines goes something like this: “Let me ask you this question in regards to the skydiving: what is the point of the helmet in the skydiving? I mean you jump out of that plane and that chute doesn’t open, the helmet is now wearing you for protection.”

These days Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif looks like a man struggling with his chute, battling fierce winds and anticipating immediate disaster. He probably also realises that if he crashes, his helmet will be just fine, but he probably won’t be.

Turn on any news channel and you’ll find an anchor asking of a stoic looking PML-N participant if they really are in the driving seat. The PML-N participant will answer while trying their best to ignore the uncontrolled giggling from the anchor that they’re on the same page with the army. The incessant giggling will sometimes peeve them enough to respond with a defiant, “Yes, we’re in charge. Yes, we are.” This will be followed by an expression on their faces that says they have just startled themselves with that outburst.

But the giggling will not stop, as if the anchor is saying that he’s the only one in on a joke that if others were let in on, they would double over laughing. But the joke is as old as time. If they had asked the same question of a Benazir, or a Junejo, or a Nawaz Sharif of a bygone year, whether they were really in charge, would they have said yes? They probably would have said yes, but would they have meant it? The only one who would have said yes and meant it was another Bhutto, in another time. And whatever happened with that guy? In fact, those who know these things claim that this is the oldest joke in the country. Legend goes that when Mustafa Ali Hamdani made his famous Radio Pakistan announcement in 1947, he turned around and said, “Have you heard the one about democracy being in charge. Yeah, me neither.”

Nawaz Sharif has gone into the stoic mode once more. He’s determined to remain unflappable, no matter the insult or injury. So far he has walked the line with admirable precision; he has come farther than anyone hoped. Even when Asif Zardari tried to outflank the army by attacking Nawaz Sharif — does Zardari really think Nawaz Sharif could stop the action against him even if he wanted to — he did not try to outmanoeuver Zardari by declaring his hands were clean. Instead, he leaned in. He’s hoping this will open the chute, or at least give him the anti-gravitational grace he’s been hoping for.

Would Zardari, the compromiser in chief, had done anything different if he were in Nawaz Sharif’s place? First of all, what Zardari or Altaf Hussain wouldn’t give to be in Nawaz Sharif’s place! Falling, with just a helmet for cover, Sharif is still way more secure than either of the other two. For now.

Zardari would’ve followed the army’s lead, just as every other politician in the country, with as much efficiency as Nawaz Sharif, though with a little more attitude.

Some people were scandalised at Nawaz Sharif’s insufficiently concealed exultation in his address after the Judicial Commission ruled in his favour. His detractors thought it was vindictive, his supporters admitted it was graceless. But that may have been the happiest he has been in the last year, the briefest moments when he felt on firm ground and not falling. It probably didn’t take long for the realisation to hit — this did not change a thing. He went back to the grim faced stoicism, and single-minded tenaciousness. He’s not trying to defend himself, or even take evasive action, he’s resolved to take it all and not make a peep.

But however long the prime minister holds his pose, and this is Nawaz Sharif we’re talking about — he’s bound to make a mistake, isn’t he? – PML-N’s turn is also coming. Pressure will mount for at least some token arrests of the PML-N leaders, but when that happens (maybe Rana Mashhood?), pressure will mount some more. Asif Zardari is not being naive or idealistic when he says there should be at least a couple of arrests in Punjab, so they know that justice is being done — Zardari is seldom idealistic and never naive. He and everyone else has seen Imran Khan making mountain out of a mole hill. Wait till he has a decent sized mole hill.

But all is not grim for the man not in the driving seat. The one driving is invested in him too. While PML-N will not sit pretty for long, they’re still the perfect match for the army. An alliance with any of the other major forces is difficult — Altaf Hussain is out of the question, Zardari is part bogeyman if he’s part solution, and Imran Khan is too impetuous to be relied upon in matters of such consequence. At best, Imran Khan will be an imperfect Nawaz Sharif. At worst, he will be Imran Khan.

But having said that, politicians have never proved it more forcefully that politics is the art of the possible than when they’re dealing with the army.

Nawaz Sharif does have a torturous road ahead. He will be hoping it’s a long one too. For now, he needs to hold onto his helmet with everything he’s got. If the helmet comes off and he crashes, he will be nothing but a leisurely meal for his rivals.

As a country, the current atmosphere of uncertainty about the future is still a huge improvement on the all around “bad news” phase we’ve been in for the last decade. Considering that an operation of this magnitude against terrorism would’ve been unthinkable just last year, and progress the country has made at least shaking up the deeply entrenched corruption, and the economic gains the government has been able to make amidst all this, Nawaz Sharif’s just sitting there and taking it all appears nothing short of miraculous for the country.

Indeed, of all the roles Nawaz Sharif has played in the last three decades, the upstart, the enthroned, the exiled, the disgraced and the redeemed, the falling act may be his finest.