To his friends, he stands out as the best hope for Pakistan’s future. To his foes, he is capable of squandering the few recent gains by Pakistan as the country seeks to emerge from years of conflict with hardcore militants.
As Pakistan’s industrialist-turned-prime minister looks towards completing three years in office out of his five-year term this summer, the south Asian country’s divisions over Nawaz Sharif’s performance are out in the open.
Sharif’s political history qualifies well as a drama with its unparalleled ups and downs. Brought down in a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999 and subsequently forced in exile to Saudi Arabia, Sharif’s return as prime minister in 2013 was nothing short of a miracle.
His return from the political wilderness, according to some, was a powerful story of one turn of unexpected events after another in a yet-to-fully mature Third World democracy. While Sharif returned to a hero’s welcome, the carefully constructed political framework devised by General Musharraf quickly crumbled. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid e Azam or PML-Q, a coalition of Musharraf loyalists, which dominated the political scene for almost a decade, became confined to the country’s political periphery at best.
Even the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), supposedly Sharif’s political foe, appeared to draw the line on how far they will raise the pressure on the ruling structure. For the PPP, any move to force Sharif out of office may well endanger Pakistan’s democracy and give space yet again to powerful generals.
Yet tragically, this visible comfort level for Pakistan’s prime minister is still to turn the corner for the south Asian country. A palpable sense of unease rules on the streets of Pakistan where many are gripped with uncertainty over their daily lives, notwithstanding the oft-repeated official success stories of an overall consolidation.
Though Sharif and his comrades are eager to spell out coming future successes in areas such as predicting an end to Pakistan’s terrible energy shortages by 2018 (the year of the next elections), popular disbelief on such promises remains visible all around. Away from the cities, the picture across Pakistan’s rural heartland is nothing short of being clearly dismal. Pakistan’s farmers continue to reel from significant losses in major crops like rice and cotton just last year, after prices crashed in the wake of a global price fall due to the ongoing commodities crisis.
Though other countries experienced similar fallouts from crashing oil prices that brought down the prices of key agricultural commodities, they also acted decisively in support of their farming communities.
In Pakistan’s case, Sharif’s main area of focus on the economic front hovers around overseeing one mega-project after another, with little attention to tackling pressing challenges at the grass roots.
The definition of prosperity in today’s Pakistan appears to be linked more to building major roads and bus projects rather than elements of human security like revamping a dysfunctional government school system or government-provided health care.
With Pakistan’s journey under its present rulers being far from impressive, its not surprising that success on battling hardcore militants has far from begun to lift the country’s overall prospects.
The gap, in large part, is driven by the widely held view, and rightly so, that the once all too visible advance by hardcore militants has been reversed by Pakistan’s army. The process of consolidating these gains with a series of follow-up measures is yet to take place — an area in which Sharif and his political cronies have yet to come up to the mark.
In the past year, notably after an audacious Taliban attack at a school in the northern city of Peshawar in December 2014, the army decisively took the battle to the turf of hardcore militants. Yet, little has visibly been achieved by way of building a solid national consensus, within and outside the parliamentary structure, to galvanise the bulk of the population in support of beating back militants.
If meaningfully undertaken, such a consensus could have easily become an essential cornerstone of sustainably winning the campaign against militants.
It is imperative to note that the battle to win back space from militants needs to be fought on two equally essential fronts.
On the one hand, the battle is indeed a military campaign where meeting the challenge will all be about tangible gains on the battlefield. But on the other hand, sustaining the success will be about carving out a new narrative to end the rein of militants across many areas of daily life in Pakistan.
Civilian-military standoff risk high
Going by Sharif’s past, Pakistan continues to live with the risk of another futile civil-military standoff caused by politicians picking up a needless clash with the army. In 1998, the very well respected General Jehangir Karamat, who served as chief of the army staff at the time, eventually resigned to end mounting friction with prime minister Sharif.
Just over a year later, Sharif’s ill-advised decision to replace Musharraf as the army chief provoked the last coup. Today, Pakistan’s army appears to remain committed to supporting civilian rule across the south Asian country. And yet, almost a landmark moment will come in November this year when General Raheel Sharif, the respected present army chief, will be due to retire.
For prime minister Sharif, the challenge will indeed be to ensure that a choice of his successor is made on merit and in keeping with Pakistan’s best national interest. Any deviation from this fundamental principle will not only make the decision controversial. More importantly, it will demonstrate that the prime minister continues to fail in breaking off from his controversial past in leading Pakistan to a more promising future.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.