At The Crossing
- Nawaz Sharif wins near majority, set to form a ‘strong government’
- Pakistan economy in deep trouble, inflation in double digits, major power shortages, a looming balance of payments crisis
- Sharif to broach an agriculture tax, but will a landed political lobby agree to it?
- PML(N) has been soft on jehadis in Punjab, can it rein them in now?
- Sharif finally a busineessman, wants better ties with India
It was a scene that caught everyone in Pakistan by surprise. Prime minister-elect Mian Nawaz Sharif walking into Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital with a bouquet of roses for the ailing Imran Khan, now formally leader of the Opposition. “We don’t have any personal rivalry. Pakistan is in trouble and we should work together to give a better Pakistan to the next generations. I have told him that we will play a friendly match once he recovers,” Sharif told the waiting media on his overture. Ties between the two leaders have been quite amenable—days before the polls, Sharif had cancelled canvassing for a day as a seriously injured Imran was rushed to hospital.
As Sharif himself admitted, Pakistan is indeed in deep trouble. Growth had stunted at a modest four per cent during the PPP government, with runaway inflation flailing in double figures. Electricity and gas shortages have closed down dozens of industrial units and Pakistan’s export figures (not counting trade with India) appear dismal. Indeed, US senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, has already warned Nawaz Sharif that “Pakistan may face a balance of payments crisis unless its new leaders take decisive action”.
The new prime minister, with his conciliatory comments, realises that he has to keep Washington on his side if he hopes for quick bailout packages from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where nothing moves without a nod from Uncle Sam. Already, through a congratulatory telephone call, US president Barack Obama has indicated an early meeting. Author and political analyst Ahmed Rashid says Sharif is on the right tack, “He’ll have to deal with the Americans more adroitly, particularly if he wants their support to gain the loans from the IMF and the World Bank that Pakistan desperately needs.”
As he readies for hard ‘reforms’ (a prerequisite for IMF handouts), Sharif has been making noises about an ‘agriculture tax’, something every government, bloated with landed agriculturists, has avoided. Businessman versus landlords, who will give in? With election numbers backing him, Sharif and his experienced team look ready to form a strong government, so is all this “gloom and doom” about to change?
One indicator of the high hopes involved was the Karachi stock market breaking all previous records and breaching the 20,000 barrier. There was good news on the Indo-Pak trade front as well, with fresh figures indicating that Pakistan’s exports had crossed the $500 million mark.
Sharif has indicated that the army will be on board as he awards the stalled MFN status to India. As a businessman himself, he sees improved trade ties with his neighbour softening the way towards other contentious issues. Of course, this is nothing new. In February 1, 1997, a night before he won elections to become prime minister for the second time, he had spoken passionately about opening up of trade ties with India. When questioned further, he had told Outlook then, “I am not being soft on India, just realistic.”
Noting the excitement in New Delhi, especially with the two Punjabi prime ministers shunning protocol and committing in undue haste to meet up, it is noteworthy that nothing really has changed from the time Manmohan Singh declared that “it cannot be business as usual (with Pakistan)”.
The issues that bedevilled relations were not caused by the outgoing PPP government, which had taken several progressive measures, but because of non-state actors and the security establishment. It is too early to predict how Sharif will overcome these predicaments, and—as he has promised—“rein in” the jehadis. Former president Asif Ali Zardari had handed over foreign relations to General HQ on a silver platter as part of a “compromise”. Sharif, with a “heavy mandate”, has no such compulsions as of now.
Luck is also on Sharif’s side for ghq is no longer the sole power centre. An independent media, together with a free judiciary, motivated civil society, and the weight of the legislative and executive has to some extent helped restrain the army. It’s helped that the generals are busy putting out fires that they themselves lit and have little time to indulge in politics. Sharif will also be watching closely for any attempts by the defence establishment to tweak foreign policy. A most important factor here— with “hot western borders”, the army would like to see some stability on the east.
Indeed, in the initial days itself, Sharif has not been averse to mixing it up with the defence biggies. While army chief General Pervez Kayani has said nothing about the subject directly or indirectly, the PM-elect has come out and stated that Kayani would not be interested in a third term and that the next army chief would be chosen by him.
As the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and the US made a beeline to Sharif’s Raiwind palace in Jati Umra on the outskirts of Lahore, what no one in his camp was committing to was whether the PML(N) would withstand the pressure to abandon the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline (which both the US and Saudi had failed to convince Zardari to give up).
Tariq Fatimi, foreign policy advisor to Sharif, puts in a word of caution. “A failure to recognise that foreign policy by itself cannot confront external challenges, unless reinforced by an effective and credible domestic policy, would result in continuing the drift that has already damaged us badly. Moreover, the concessions accorded to foreign actors—both state and non-state—till now have left us exposed and subject to external pressure and internal blackmail,” he says.
Also worrying for many is how Sharif and Imran, both Lahorites, might tread gently while dealing with the Pakistani Taliban. Unlike the army, which is in no mood to solve militancy though talks, Sharif has compromised several times with the Punjabi jehadis (who are today the footsoldiers for the Taliban and Al Qaeda) and even awarded party tickets to some of them.
The Dawn daily has already asked searching questions on these “very grey areas” and how Sharif intends to deal with it. Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz Sharif was lording over Punjab for five years while these jehadis were left free to operate. It was from here that Ajmal Kasab’s group planned and executed the ghastly Mumbai attacks.
At election rallies—between the caged tiger shows and other tamashas—Shahbaz had publicly pleaded with the Taliban, asking them to spare Punjab saying they too were against US policies, (they had even stopped all USAID projects). Indeed, it was one province where the Taliban did not carry out its bloody strikes during electioneering.
The PML(N)’s links with Islamist organisations and their militant wings has set up a potentially explosive problem. As the Dawn asks: will these groups, who have so far avoided training their violent attentions on the PML(N), expect more space for themselves in Punjab and the country’s troubled spots?
Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf too has advocated talks rather than military strikes to tackle the militants. It will be interesting to see how the three Punjabi leaders (including General Pervez Kayani) now deal with militancy and terrorism. Will Imran, who is expected to form the government in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, and Sharif be able to convince Kayani to go for a non-military strategy?
The year 2014 will see not only a new PM, but also have new occupants in the offices of the president, chief justice of the supreme court and the army chief. It is anyone’s guess how the country will fare in the coming year, if the dream of a ‘Naya Pakistan’ will come true.