Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of Pakistan/Opinion
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of Pakistan Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

After days of high voltage drama in Pakistan, Imran Khan was ousted from power, paving way for Shehbaz Sharif, who took over the reigns as the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Life appears to have come a full circle for Shehbaz, 70, brother of Pakistan’s three-time Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, 72. He bagged 174 votes in the country’s National Assembly after all lawmakers from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) resigned en masse and walked out of the parliament in protest.

With a reputation of being an efficient administrator, Shehbaz has previously won plaudits as the Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where he displayed a hands-on style of governance, making sure that projects took off from ground and reached completion. Compared to his brother, the older Sharif, who enjoys a massive political heft, Shehbaz is slightly low-key with a penchant for poetry.

The Sharifs are among the most successful industrialists in Pakistan with a host of big businesses — from the behemoth Sharif Group to the Ittefaq Group of Companies. As a scion of the wealthy Sharifs, Shehbaz joined his older brother in the family business during the 1970s at age 20.

Shahbaz Sharif
In this photo released by Press Information Department, acting President of Pakistan Sadiq Sanjrani, left, administers the oath of office to newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif during a ceremony at Presidential Palace, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, April 11, 2022. Image Credit: Press Information Department via AP

The family owes its fortune to the Sharif patriarch, Mian Mohammad Sharif, a noted businessman of Kashmiri extraction, whose family moved from South Kashmir to Amritsar in Punjab in the early 20th century. They later moved to Lahore where Shehbaz was born in September 1951. The family’s sprawling residence, located on the northern outskirts of Lahore, Jati Umra, continues to be their seat of power.

The second of Sharif’s three sons, Shehbaz was educated at Saint Anthony’s High School in Lahore and later attended Government College University, Lahore, to earn a degree in Arts.

Foray into politics

For the Sharifs, the extension into politics was a natural corollary. Shehbaz first got elected as a member of Punjab Assembly in 1988 when Nawaz became the Chief Minister of Punjab.

By 1997, it was the younger Sharif’s turn. He became the Chief Minister when his brother was Prime Minister of Pakistan. Then came the coup d’état in 1999.

Shehbaz along with the family spent eight long years in exile in Saudi Arabia before returning to Pakistan in 2007. The following year, he was elected the Chief Minister a second time.

What he lacked in political aura, Sharif made up as a very efficient administrator. With a sharp focus on health, agriculture and industrial sectors, the younger Sharif has the ability bulldoze through Pakistan’s ponderous bureaucracy and get infrastructure projects completed in record time, per Bloomberg.

With a keen interest in infrastructure development, Sharif is credited with launching some of Pakistan’s biggest projects like the intercity rapid transport systems, highways, and rural road development. Under his rule, the Orange Line — an automated rapid transit line in Lahore, a first in Pakistan, was initiated.

Sharif won power in the state a third time in 2013 and became the Chief Minister again. During his third tenure, he speeded up Lahore MetroBus — a rapid urban transportation project.

The much-talked about $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) also progressed under the Sharif government. He signed several Belt and Road Initiative cooperation deals with China directly to improve local infrastructure and economic development in Punjab.

Sharif has maintained long-standing and personal ties with China over the years.

Personal life and graft charges

Shehbaz married Begum Nusrat Shehbaz in 1973. They have four children: Salman, Hamza and twin sisters, Javeria and Rabia. In 2003, Shehbaz married socialite and author Tehmina Durrani.

In September 2020, the three-time CM was arrested by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on charges of money laundering. Subsequently released on bail, Sharif vehemently denied the allegations and called them politically motivated.

Till date, he has not been convicted of an offence. On at least two occasions, Pakistan’s top courts rebuked the anti-corruption authorities for their handling of the case while granting bail to Shehbaz.

The UK’s National Crime Agency has recently cleared him in a money-laundering probe initiated at the request of the previous government.

Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif continues to live in London. Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified the former PM for not fully declaring assets while contesting elections. He was barred from holding office in a landmark verdict in 2017.

Shortly thereafter, Shehbaz was nominated as the president of his party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).

Reconciliation man?

Overall seen as more moderate than the senior Sharif, Shehbaz has already offered an olive branch to neighbouring India, reciprocating Prime Minister Modi’s wishes on assuming the high office. But all is not rosy for the new Prime Minister.

Notwithstanding his reputation as a man who gets things done, Shehbaz urgently needs some political stability in Pakistan to restart payments from international financial institutions, and get the country into some order.

Currently Pakistan is in the midst of one of the worst inflation crises with the cost of fuel and food 15 per cent higher last month than a year earlier. Two-thirds of Pakistanis consider inflation to be the country’s biggest problem.

The coming few months are going to be a challenge for Sharif, who has to tackle a two-front battle — to get the stalled loan package from IMF restarted as soon as possible and domestically face his bête noire — the ever so furious Imran Khan’s street power.

For a man known to take challenges head-on, there is no time to lose. Shehbaz Sharif, the 23rd Prime Minister of Pakistan, may have assumed power in extraordinary circumstances but the man has earned a name in rolling up his sleeves and getting down into the nitty-gritty of work. At the peak of his political career, can he deliver?