Brinkmanship on Nawaz’s departure hard to resist

November 17, 2019

This isn’t the first time that doubts have been expressed by Nawaz Sharif’s opponents about the severity of his illness. When Nawaz Sharif went to UK earlier to undergo a major heart procedure, some of his rivals claimed that he was faking illness to escape accountability cases


One of the most discussed and divisive issues in recent months, has been the deteriorating health of former prime minister, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. Moreover, the question arose whether he would be allowed to travel abroad for medical treatment, considering he has been convicted on corruption charges and is serving a seven-year prison sentence.

Every day brings fresh news about his likely departure for the United Kingdom, but something happens and it is delayed. He hasn’t gone yet, despite, the seriousness of his ailment. Although, it won’t be possible to keep him from travelling to London for long as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government is scared of the consequences of his health deteriorating further. As Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has been warning recently, the government would be held responsible if something happens to its supreme leader, in case he isn’t allowed to travel abroad in time for the required treatment.

There is so much politics in Pakistan, that it affects decisions that concern allowing someone with a serious disease to receive treatment abroad. Politics cannot be far behind, if the patient happens to be a major political rival of the incumbent prime minister. Nawaz Sharif, was thrice the prime minister of Pakistan and is still not finished politically, despite being convicted by a court on graft charges and his disqualification from holding public office. He remains a threat to Prime Minister Imran Khan, and his PTI, particularly in the Punjab, which as Pakistan’s largest province, decides after every election, as to which party and politician gets to rule the country. Imran Khan has to tread cautiously as he doesn’t want to look less committed to tackling graft and going after those accused of corruption; after having made this issue a major plank of his agenda, for his 22 years in politics.

Despite the incessant talk of an emerging ‘deal’ between the Sharif family and Imran Khan, there has been no compromise yet and none is likely to happen in the near future, given the animosity between the two sides and the political cost it would entail. The prime minister and his aides have been repeatedly saying that the decision to allow Nawaz Sharif to seek treatment abroad as recommended by medical boards, was made on humanitarian grounds. This argument would make him look kind-hearted and caring, rather than vindictive. Even though his opponents lose no opportunity to accuse him of using accountability to politically victimise his opponents.

Khan’s statement of concern over Sharif’s health, sending Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmin Rashid to inquire about his health with wishes from the PM, was done in order to show that politics would not create obstacles to the provision of medical treatment, in the country or abroad. Despite some PTI leader’s suspicions regarding how seriously ill Sharif is, Khan’s gesture should become the norm rather than the exception in Pakistan’s bitter and unforgiving politics.

This isn’t the first time that doubts have been expressed by Nawaz Sharif’s opponents about the severity of his illness. When Nawaz Sharif went to UK earlier to undergo a major heart procedure, some of his rivals claimed that he was faking illness to escape accountability cases. All his critics were proven wrong in the end. The same heartless treatment was given to his late wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, when she was fighting for her life in a London hospital.

Around this time, Nawaz Sharif decided to return to Pakistan to face trial and certain imprisonment along with his daughter and political heir, Maryam, leaving Kulsoom Nawaz on her death bed. In a courageous move, he surprised his opponents and many unbelieving critics by flying to Pakistan to be taken into custody upon arrival. A number of other politicians, including Altaf Hussain and retired General Pervez Musharraf, stayed away instead of returning to Pakistan to face trial and possible imprisonment. Due to a lack of courage to face the courts, answer charges and clear their names; their political careers suffered the longer they stayed out of Pakistan.

Those skeptical of Sharif’s return post this round of treatment, should remember that the deposed prime minister, until now, has proved he is made of sterner stuff.

While it is true that he started his politics under the patronage of army generals – Ghulam Jilani, Ziaul Haq and Hamid Gul – the fact remains that he gradually moved out of the powerful military’s influence and even confronted it, only to end up at the receiving end. The PML-N is much bigger than most other parties and has, therefore, much larger stakes in Pakistani politics. If his health permits, he would still like to remain relevant to the country’s politics and any sign of weakness shown by him would affect the fortunes of his party and family; whose other members, including children Maryam, Hasan and Hussain as well as Shahbaz Sharif and his son Hamza are also facing charges of misuse of power and corruption. The endless legal battles would continue to take their toll on the family’s political and financial power, but not fighting the cases and clearing the Sharifs’ name could inflict greater damage to its reputation and future in politics.

The extreme care taken by the government in removing Nawaz Sharif’s name from the Exit Control List (ECL) enabling him to travel abroad for treatment was understandable. The government went through the legal route to avoid blame, in case things went wrong.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which has been investigating the graft cases against him, also didn’t want the responsibility for letting go a convict and possibly jeopardising its other cases against him and his family. The prime minister even took a vote of his cabinet members with the majority, favouring the removal of Nawaz Sharif’s name from the ECL, as he didn’t want to make the decision on this important issue alone.

It is now obvious that Nawaz Sharif will eventually leave for UK after being granted permission to avail medical treatment.

The issue of submitting indemnity bonds, so he is bound to return will hopefully be resolved; as the main aim is to save his life. As doctors are saying, treatment abroad is essential for the multiple health problems he is afflicted with.

He must be flown out, in time to start treatment before it is too late. Lamenting the delay, will be of no use once the damage is done. The political crisis which may follow, could unravel the system of which is already facing a challenge from the on-going agitation launched by JUI-F leader, Maulana Fazlur Rahman.

Nawaz Sharif's foreign travel and ongoing game of brinkmanship