Can Nawaz rescue Pakistan?

Authors: Viswesh Rammohan and Nabeel A Mancheri, NIAS

Over 46 million people exercised their right to vote in Pakistan in May earlier this year — close to 55 per cent of the population and a record turnout since 1988. Pakistan’s first transition from one civilian government to another is an incredible achievement for a country that has been under military rule for a large part of its history.

Nawaz Sharif is not a new name in Pakistani politics, and this time he had to overcome the biggest political challenge of his career by beating two big names in former-cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and the party of the incumbent president, Asif Ali Zardari. But even in the face of strong opposition Nawaz dominated the elections: he managed to secure 126 seats out of 272 in a direct election. Though the number wasn’t enough to form a single government, his landslide victory becomes obvious when one sees that the next best party’s tally is a meagre 33 seats.

Nawaz Sharif has been prime minister of Pakistan twice, from 1990–93 and again from 1997–99. In 1993, Nawaz resigned under pressure from the armed forces before the completion of his first term after he and President Ghulam Ishaq were locked in a political battle. His second reign was also short-lived: he was ousted from power in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, the army chief of that time.

Nawaz’s third term isn’t going to be any easier. The situation in Pakistan has only gotten worse since the last time he was in power. Nawaz’s biggest threats are from the inside, not the outside. Various insurgent and terrorist groups including the Pakistani Taliban, which has always been described as being close to Al-Qaeda, organised election-related violence; most of them regard elections as un-Islamic. But the Taliban left Nawaz’s campaign relatively untouched because he wasn’t perceived as liberal or secular. He will have to act on the Taliban issue with utmost caution.

The threat from the Taliban and other terrorist organisations is not Nawaz’s only problem. Pakistan is facing a huge economic crisis, with low growth rates, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and high unemployment. Nawaz calls himself an ‘industrialist’, and is probably the best person to improve the economic situation. It doesn’t help that Pakistan can’t produce enough energy for itself: even the most industrialised province, Punjab, lacks power for over 20 hours a day, making the situation for factories and businesses worse and adding to the failing economy. This energy crisis was the most important election issue, and Nawaz’s promise to fix it may be why the people chose him.

The other big player in Pakistan politics has always been the army, which still does not seem to like Nawaz very much. While this time the army chose to stay out of the elections, Nawaz will have to work with it as he governs. The army still has considerable influence in all matters of national and international interest and Nawaz has to tread carefully.

If the internal problems of Pakistan aren’t hard enough to deal with, Nawaz’s problems are compounded by foreign relations. Pakistan’s future will be determined by its relations with its neighbours. On the one hand, the situation between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been tense post 9/11. With NATO troops pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan will be scrutinised constantly by the United States and the world as it deals with its western neighbour. Pakistan has said that its strategy in Afghanistan post-2014 is going to be one of ‘no interference and no favourites’. Easy to say, but Nawaz might find that policy difficult to implement in practice.

Then, as always, there is India. In his election campaign and several times previously, Nawaz has said that his most important goal is to improve relations with India. Nawaz is one of only a few Pakistani leaders who have reached out to their Indian counterparts. His reconciliation endeavour was rather short-lived, however, as India and Pakistan had a limited war over Kargil in Kashmir and Nawaz was later ousted by Musharraf. Nawaz always blamed Musharraf for acting alone on the Kargil. Much has changed in Pakistani politics since 1999 and there are expectations of better ties with India under Nawaz.

There are two contrasting pictures emerging about Nawaz. Some see him as a corrupt politician who has not done Pakistan much good. But there are a large number of people who believe that Nawaz has matured. These optimists believe that he now understands Pakistan much better than he did in 1999. Pakistan’s future remains bleak, but Nawaz can change it. The short-term strategy for Nawaz would be to improve the economy and solve the energy crisis. All of this has to be done along with maintaining good foreign ties, especially with India and Afghanistan. It is safe to say that Nawaz faces the huge burden of rescuing Pakistan. Might it be third time lucky for Nawaz?

Nabeel A Mancheri is an Assistant Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.

Viswesh Rammohan is an intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.


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  • Nawaz Sharif is unlikely to have received with equanimity the news that, on 13 September, the BJP chose the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, as its prime ministerial candidate. At the same time one of India’s most charismatic and one of its most controversial politicians, Modi will probably be a more difficult interlocutor for Nawaz than his Congress counterpart should a BJP-led coalition come into office in 2014. It doesn’t help that it was a BJP government that fought the Kargil war against Pakistan that ended in humiliation for Nawaz. A self-declared ‘Hindu nationalist’, Modi has never entirely moved out from under the cloud of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots and killings in his state. He recently said that he had been saddened by that tragedy, just as he would be saddened if a puppy were run over, a comment that failed to endear him to many Muslims. Modi has taken more strident positions on India’s relations with Pakistan (and China) than the Congress government. He may, of course, be forced to adopt a more conciliatory tone if he himself is in power. Modi, a bachelor in his sixties, is the son of a grocer and, through his developmental efforts in Gujarat, a hero to much of India’s corporate sector. Next year, he is likely to be competing for power with Rahul Gandhi, who is the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers. Nawaz may have to take comfort from the fact that he has at least a little more in common with Modi than with the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

    • mancheri

      I agree with your point that Modi as Prime Minister will be forced to adopt a more conciliatory tone towards Pakistan following the practices of his seniors in the party like Vajpayee, LK Advani and Jaswant Singh who were at the helm of affairs last time. This conciliatory tone of Modi was reflected in a speech he gave to ex-service men recently, first such a speech he gave after his coronation last week as BJP’s PM candidate. One statement in his speech was “if Pakistan can put an end to the policy of promoting terrorism for 10 years, it will see double the economic progress it has seen in the past 60 years” and he praised Mr. Vajpayee’s Pakistan policy, though the dictator Musharraf was the sole beneficiary of this conciliatory foreign policy.

      It won’t make much difference to Pakistan whether Congress or BJP is in power in Delhi, but Modi will be a tough guy to deal with.

      • Ken Ward

        Speaking in Ankara, Nawaz Sharif has also just praised Vajpayee’s Pakistan policy, including his visit to Lahore before the Kargil war took place. It could be dangerous for such moves towards reconciliation, however, if another incident like the killing of five Indian soldiers in Kashmir a couple of months ago intervenes in the midst of India’s election campaign, which is already heating up months in advance of the poll.

    • Viswesh

      I am not entirely convinced about Modi’s conciliatory tone with regard to Pakistan. The speech he gave at Rewari seems to be a well rehearsed one and he actually choose his words. In spite of that, there were some elements in it which bothered me. He says, “Pakistan was created with an anti-India feeling but it can’t survive on that sentiment. You took to killing innocent civilians after you lost in wars”. Also, possibly because he was addressing ex-servicemen, Modi seems to have praised the Army endlessly. He has shifted all the blame to New Delhi and the ‘weak’ government. He also said that China’s push for diverting Brahmaputra waters and trying to ‘grab’ Arunachal Pradesh on the other side of the border was a result of the same ‘weak’ government. There was also something with regard to proxy wars and how the UN need not feel proud that there hasn’t been a third world war. Quite a comment from a man who has had human rights violation charges around his neck, for nearly a decade now. And as already mentioned, he prasied Vajpayee’s policy with regard to Pakistan which in itself is rather interesting. Everybody knows the results of that. Will he tread on the same line? I highly doubt it.

      • Ken Ward

        I share Viswesh’s sentiments. I have the impression that Modi has been exerting some self-control as his electoral campaign begins but, given the slightest provocation, or simply opportunity, he may ‘lose it’ and return to his customary, bellicose style.