Pakistan: With Nawaz Sharif’s Return, Politics Comes Full Circle – Analysis


By Sushant Sareen

The prodigal Nawaz Sharif has finally returned to Pakistan, ending a self-imposed exile of four years. For months, Pakistan was rife with speculation on whether or not he will return. It hinged on a number of things. The first was the political circumstances. Would elections be held, or will there be a prolonged caretaker setup run by the military? The second was, what sort of a judicial setup would Nawaz be facing if he returned? He wanted to time his return after the retirement of Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial whose bias in favour of Imran Khan was the stuff of legends. His successor, Faez Isa, was seen as a safer bet for Nawaz Sharif, because Isa isn’t seen as a lackey of Imran Khan or the Army. The third factor was, what were the conditions he had to accept? Basically, the dos and don’ts given by the military establishment. Finally, it depended on the guarantees of personal safety and liberty as also of a political level playing field.

That his return has been permitted by Pakistan’s permanent establishment—the Pakistan Army—is a no-brainer. Technically, Nawaz Sharif is an absconder in the eyes of Pakistani law. And yet, he received the protocol of a Prime Minister in waiting. All doors were opened for him, all courtesies were extended to him, all facilities were laid out for him on his return. Even the courts, which were hostile to him and ousted him in what was a judicial coup in 2017, were ready to accommodate his return and ensure he wasn’t arrested as soon as he landed back in Pakistan.

With Nawaz—the great comeback kid (actually he is a septuagenarian) of Pakistani politics—making a bid to become Prime Minister for the fourth and perhaps last time, he is once again the Army’s chosen one to take on its (and his) bete noire Imran Khan.

In a sense, Nawaz Sharif’s triumphant return is not just Pakistan’s politics taking a full circle to his dubious ouster in 2017, but also marks Nawaz’s own politics coming full circle to the time when he was the Pakistan Army’s favourite child way back in the 1980s. He started his political career with the complete backing and support of the military, which propped him up as its man against Benazir Bhutto. In the 1988 elections, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) even crafted and mid-wifed a political alliance—Islami Jamhoori Itihad (IJI)—to tilt the political field in Nawaz’s favour. With Nawaz—the great comeback kid (actually he is a septuagenarian) of Pakistani politics—making a bid to become Prime Minister for the fourth and perhaps last time, he is once again the Army’s chosen one to take on its (and his) bete noire Imran Khan. The political field is being heavily tilted in favour of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). All stops are being pulled out to run the incarcerated Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) into the ground and ensure he is not in the election fray in any meaningful way.

Nawaz Sharif returns to a different Pakistan four years later

Nawaz Sharif is, however, coming back to a very different Pakistan than the one he left in 2019. The country is sharply polarised, economically bankrupt, and in the midst of a serious jihadist insurgency. The PML-N has lost significant ground to the PTI and Imran Khan, and its support base has shrunk. If Imran Khan is allowed a free hand in the forthcoming general elections, he would sweep the polls. In a recent survey, Imran soars over Nawaz in popularity and the PTI would have left PML-N biting the dust. While Nawaz Sharif is expected to energise his core support base especially in Punjab, the political ground has shifted. What is more, even though the military establishment appears reconciled to seeing Nawaz Sharif back in the saddle—this is the prevailing assessment at this point in time—it doesn’t trust him to not go rogue once again and try to put the army in its rightful place. After all, in all his three previous innings, Nawaz Sharif was ousted because he got into a scrap with the Generals. His relations with all the Army chiefs he dealt with—and most of whom he himself appointed—have also always been strained. Nawaz has always wanted to call the shots and that pits him against the military, which isn’t ready to submit to civilian authority.

The Army will therefore ensure that even if Nawaz gets a fourth term, he will be politically hobbled by being forced to head a coalition government, whose strings will be controlled by the GHQ in Rawalpindi. The flotsam and jetsam of PTI  deserters—most of them the ‘electables’—has been corralled together into the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP) in Punjab and PTI-Parliamentarians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). Both these new parties led by two of Imran Khan’s closest lieutenants, Jehangir Tareen and Pervez Khattak respectively, are expected to fragment the verdict in a way that they hold the balance of power in the centre, Punjab and K-P. Not many in Pakistan believe that such a government will be sustainable for very long, even less so because it will have to take many really tough decisions to put the country back on the rails.

Although questions will be raised about the legitimacy of any elections in which Imran Khan is not allowed to participate, these questions are unlikely to bother the power players in Pakistan. Legitimacy is an overrated virtue in Pakistani politics where power brings its own legitimacy. Former Balochistan Chief Minister, Aslam Raisani, had once famously said a graduation degree is a degree regardless of whether it is genuine or fake; similarly, in Pakistan, an election victory is an election victory regardless of whether it came from popular support or rigging. There have been any number of elections in the past in which the dice was loaded against one or the other party. But that never stopped the victors from claiming legitimacy; nor did it make people rise up in revolt over their mandate being denied or stolen.

Challenges in Nawaz Sharif’s path

Nawaz Sharif’s problem is not so much the legitimacy of the political process as it is about his and his party’s dwindling popularity. This is not to say it doesn’t have a support base; but it is no longer the powerhouse it was five years ago. He will need to rebuild this power-base if he has to have any chance of governing even moderately well. His coming home party—the rally in Lahore—was impressive in terms of the crowd turnout. It wasn’t the largest collection of people at the Minar-e-Pakistan grounds, but it was big enough for the PML-N to claim that it is on the upswing with Nawaz having returned.

That the crowd didn’t really display the energy and enthusiasm that was palpable in Imran Khan’s rallies was very apparent. Nawaz did try to push all the right buttons—he focussed on economic issues and promised to restore Pakistan’s economy; he promised he wouldn’t be vengeful against his political rivals (not sure how popular that line would be in Punjab where unless you rub your rival’s nose in the dust, you haven’t really arrived); he refrained from naming or holding accountable judges and generals who conspired against him or officials who treated him shabbily when he and his daughter were in prison; he tried to blame the back-breaking inflation on Imran Khan and absolve the feckless administration of Shehbaz Sharif and disastrous voodoo economics and bull-in-a-China shop approach of Ishaq Dar for the economic mess; he played victim and tugged at the heartstrings of the crowd over the travails his family and political associates had to undergo. But somehow it appeared that the response of the crowd to Nawaz’s punchlines was contrived and not organic.

If Nawaz Sharif’s speech is anything to go by, he doesn’t really have a solidly worked out plan on how to fix the economy. There was all the usual stuff of what would be done but absolutely nothing about how it would be done. All he offered was generalities about the agenda of the party to revive the country, but there were no specifics. Even the agenda had nothing new to offer. It was more of the same, old and tired and tried slogans: Increase exports, bring about an IT revolution, cut government expenses and reform the taxation system, creating employment and reforming the public sector etc. All this has been spoken and promised countless times earlier with absolutely nothing to show for it. What will be different this time? No really knows. In any case, Nawaz Sharif’s model of development is to go for big fancy projects that everyone can see and feel but zero fundamental reform. There is no reason to believe that he has anything different to offer in his fourth innings.

Nawaz Sharif’s attitude towards India

From an Indian perspective, there is a body of opinion that believes that with Nawaz at the helm, there could be some forward movement in bilateral relations. In his one-hour long speech , Nawaz did spend about a minute or two discussing foreign policy and relations with India. Of course, as is their wont, this got the usual suspects in India all excited. But, again, there was nothing new in what Nawaz said that hasn’t already been said earlier, including by Army chiefs. What Nawaz said was that Pakistan can no longer afford to fight with its neighbours and still hope to progress. He said Pakistan had to improve relations with everyone, including India. He sought a respectable and dignified solution to the Kashmir issue and was bold enough to suggest the possibility of an economic corridor linking Pakistan with Bangladesh through India. At least on Kashmir, the train has already left the station, and if Nawaz is pinning any hopes on reversing the constitutional reforms in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, he is clearly living in an alternate reality.

Even so, there is a chance that if he comes to power, there could be some movement at the bilateral level. India certainly wouldn’t refuse to respond to and engage with any serious initiative—not tweets, not press statements, not random passing remarks or political speeches, but to a serious diplomatic outreach through established channels (both official and back-channel). Pakistan will however have to be realistic and realise that what was on offer in the past is no longer on the table. Of course, if Nawaz Sharif was indeed to reach out to India, how that would affect his position back home will remain to be seen. His last stint was in large part cut short because he wanted to curb the Jihad factory in Pakistan—the Dawn Leaks case—and wanted to explore normalisation of relations with India. Will it be different this time around when the Army chief swings between playing cleric-in-chief (quoting Quranic texts to drive home his point) and playing Chief of Army Staff?

About the author: Sushant Sareen is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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