The new-old Nawaz Sharif

He might not be the man he was in the 1990s. For Pakistan,that’s a good thing

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Published: June 4, 2013 2:59:49 am

He might not be the man he was in the 1990s. For Pakistan,that’s a good thing

The Pakistani media has used the expression “Naya Pakistan” — Imran Khan’s campaign slogan — to describe the post-electoral situation in the country. Certainly,the mobilisation of the voters has been remarkable,since 44 million of them (out of the 86 million registered) cast their vote (sometimes at their own risk,given the attempts of the Islamists to derail the electoral process by resorting to terrorism). And a “new” man has emerged,since Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is now number two in terms of valid votes — ahead of the PPP,an “old” party of “old” feudals,whose defeat is unprecedented.

But the rest of the electoral scenario creates the impression of déjà vu. Ethnic divisions have prevailed,preventing Khan from becoming a national hero (in spite of the support he has received from urban dwellers,especially among the youth). His party has won most of its seats in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,like the Pakistan Peoples Party in Sindh,the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in Punjab. In fact,the ruling party remains tied to its traditional province,where a majority of the seats to the National Assembly are located.

More importantly,Nawaz Sharif himself is not a new man. His record leaves much to be desired in terms of democratic culture. The heir of a family of businessmen that was badly affected by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s programme of nationalistation in the 1970s,the young Nawaz joined politics rather amateurishly,till he was picked up by General Zia ul-Haq’s right-hand man in Punjab,Governor Ghulam Jilani Khan,who made him chief minister of the province in 1985. In the 1980-90s,he appeared to be a creature of the army,evident from his elevation to the head of an allegedly ISI-sponsored anti-Benazir Bhutto coalition in 1988.

As prime minister,though,Nawaz did not prove to be docile. Hence his ouster in 1993 and Pervez Musharraf’s coup in 1999. But he was not a great democrat,either. Indeed,his brother Shahnaz (who is taking care of the family bastion of Punjab,a province he has governed since 2008) had to take conciliatory measures with the judiciary because of Nawaz’s problems with the judges after his landslide victory in 1997. Nawaz had a run-in with the Supreme Court over its independence (the chief justice was forced to resign and party activists attacked the court’s offices) and questioned the freedom of the press. Najam Sethi (the caretaker chief minister of Punjab) himself spent sometime in jail for an interview he gave to the BBC in 1999. Last but not least,the degree of Nawaz’s implication in the Kargil operation has never been fully clarified. The operation was initiated by Musharraf,but it seems that the then prime minister had been informed of what was going on before the Indian army discovered the infiltrators.

Nawaz claims that he has changed. He has shown an open mind by inviting Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony and by inviting Imran Khan to be a part of a government of national unity. But many doubts persist. The most disturbing ones pertain to the illicit relationships that the PML(N) has developed with Sunni sectarian groups in Punjab,including the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,which are influential in terms of ideology and muscle power. The PML(N) is not the only party that has turned to these forces — the PPP did too — but Nawaz appears to have indulged in this rapprochement to a larger extent,in tune with his past policies (see his 1998 Shariat bill,) and his personal orthodoxy (rumour suggests that the Sharif family did not go to Jeddah in exile in 1999 just because of the benevolent attitude of the ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia,but also because of its allegiance to the Ahle Hadith creed).

This isn’t the only reason why Nawaz may try to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban. First,he knows that unless he obtains peace,his promises of restoring Pakistan’s battered economy are doomed. Second,he wants to strike a deal in order to reduce US influence in a country where anti-American sentiments have reached unprecedented proportions. Third,Nawaz and his party cannot afford to lag behind their new main enemy,Khan,in terms of burnishing their patriotic credentials and opposition to US policy. The PTI will lead the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in an alliance with the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party; both groups are seeking to engage the Pakistani Taliban and compete in US bashing.

But Nawaz may be willing to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban,too. In about 12 months,elections will take place in Afghanistan and NATO forces will withdraw in large numbers. The troops of Mullah Omar will then try to return to power in Kabul,or at least to assert their influence. Under pressure from the Pakistan army,Nawaz will then feel the need to talk to them in order to regain the old “strategic depth” and to avoid a situation where Afghanistan becomes a safe haven (what irony!) for Islamists targeting the Pakistani state.

Indeed,the nature of the relationship between Nawaz Sharif and the army is key. In the 1990s,he cultivated his past links with the army to weaken the PPP and dismiss Benazir. But he emancipated himself from the army as soon as he got a clear majority in 1997 — to the extent that he forced General Karamat to resign (a first). His treatment at Musharraf’s hands in 1999-2000 must have exacerbated this animosity. This change found its clearest expression in the democratic charter that Nawaz co-authored with Benazir in 2006. But can he afford to mobilise civilians against the army when the PPP is weak and the PTI,a new type of khaki party? How General Kayani will be replaced in the coming months after he retires as army chief will be an important indicator of his margin for manoeuvre.

Nawaz might not be the man he was in the 1990s,so far as his attitude vis-à-vis the judiciary is concerned. He has been a staunch supporter of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry when President Asif Ali Zardari showed a strong reluctance to reinstate him in 2009. But this attitude could have been over-determined by the fact that the chief justice was investigating anti-Zardari/ Bhutto cases. Now,the Sharif brothers find themselves implicated in significant cases and therefore,another succession will have to be watched closely in coming months,as Chaudhry will also retire this year.

Nawaz may make a more substantial difference in another domain: the economy. Pakistan is once again coping with a financial crisis that the IMF may attenuate because the country is too big to fail. But American aid ($23 billion since 9/11) is bound to diminish after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan — or even earlier,if Nawaz is true to his word and objects to the way Americans are eroding Pakistan’s sovereignty (there is no question that the next drone strike is likely to be a real test of how Nawaz manages relations with the US). As a businessman,he is perhaps more interested in modernising and opening up Pakistan’s economy than any other politician. That may well be the channel through which relations with India will improve. Pakistan could at last find it a good idea to trade more with India and to import energy from its neighbour,at a time when a power crisis leaves many Pakistanis with two hours of electricity a day. But if there is a new opportunity to seize,will New Delhi see it in the run-up to elections?

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS (Paris),professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute,London,and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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