Man of the moment
When Pakistan went to polls on May 11, 2013, to elect members of the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies, it was for the first time in its history a civilian government after completing its full five-year tenure would hand over to a democratically elected new government. Nearly 60 per cent of Pakistanis who form 86 million eligible voters cast their ballot. The election commission was in reasonable charge. A caretaker government was in place for the elections.
The main contest was between incumbent Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (PML(N)) seeking a third time mandate, and the first-timer Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan. Interestingly Pervez Musharraf’s candidature was rejected on various legal grounds and he was put under house arrest two weeks before elections. Elections were marred by pre-election violence killing 130 people. Pro-American parties were mostly targeted. Pakistan received praise from the world community for holding a fair election. Praise also came for Pakistan Army for allowing a smooth back-to-back second election. The United States had announced in advance that it does not favour any particular electoral outcome and prefers free and fair ballot.
PML(N) emerged the clear winner with 130 seats, nearly four times the number of seats vis-à-vis the second party PPP (35) and 70 additional seats in the reserved category would be allotted in the ratio of winnings. Nawaz Sharif, who returns to the helm after 14 years, will be the third-time Prime Minister. In his opening remarks he said: “We will fulfill all promises we have made. We have programmes to change the state of Pakistan”.
The 63-year-old, Amritsar born, Kashmiri-Punjabi lawyer, Sharif carries years of political experience. Initially propped up during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, he has been the Prime Minister in two earlier tenures (both less than three years, but the second with a historic two-thirds majority), been leader of opposition in the national assembly and also two consecutive terms as Chief Minister of the most significant state, Punjab. As the owner of Ittefaq Group, he is also one of the country’s wealthiest men. He has retained close links with the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
His second term was significantly full of action. He stripped the powers of the President by passing the 13th constitutional amendment. The nuclear tests were conducted in his tenure. Pakistan became the first Muslim country and seventh nation to become a nuclear power. He even dared to force out the Army Chief, Jehangir Karamat, and replace him with a relatively junior and later his bête noire Pervez Musharraf. The ill-conceived Kargil War was thrust upon him by Musharraf whom he thereafter tried to sack but the resultant Army coup ousted his government and he went into exile to Saudi Arabia. He returned in 2007. His party then regained Punjab where he is popularly called ‘The Lion of Punjab’. He thereafter actively supported Musharraf’s impeachment and reinstatement of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
His immediate concern would be to recover Pakistan from the debt-ridden economy and take calls on terrorism. He would have to strengthen civilian supremacy over the Army. Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has extended an invitation to him before he has even taken over. In his earlier tenures his focus was on improving the nation’s infrastructure, growth of digital telecommunication, bank and industrial privatisation, encouraged and pushed Islamisation and conservatism initiated by Zia, and introduced Islamic laws. On foreign policy issues, he sided with the UN resolution on Iraq. He worked closely with the Saudi Royal family who came to his rescue when he was ousted. Unlike the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Sharif’s nuclear policy was seen less aggressive towards India and focused the atomic programme for the benefit of public usage and civil society. Besides Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, no leader has enjoyed his level of popularity. In 1999 he signed a bilateral agreement with the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, popularly known as the Lahore declaration, and Pakistanis fully backed him. Sharif also pushed for setting up antiterrorism courts. But all the gains were lost because of the Kargil War.
About 45,000 Pakistanis, including 7,000 security personnel, have died in terrorist violence since 2001. There have been 300 suicide bombings. Karachi is a virtual battlefield. Pak military bases have been under attack. Pakistan also remains a state sponsor of terror. Three of the America’s five most-wanted terrorists live in Pakistan. The mastermind of the Mumbai massacre and head of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hafeez Saeed, makes no effort to hide. He is feted by the army and the political elite, appears on television and calls for the destruction of India and jihad against America and Israel. The head of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Omar shuttles between ISI safe houses in Quetta and Karachi. The Amir of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri, is probably hiding in a villa not much different than the one his predecessor was living in. Pakistan also has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, bigger
than Great Britain’s. The nukes are in the hands of the Generals, the civilian government only has nominal control. Civilian government has little influence over the ISI.
Will there be an end to Pak Army, controlled state-sponsored terrorism against India, or will the two countries keep sharing sweetnothings, only time will tell. India will have to keep a close watch as it itself goes into national elections. Significant dialogue can take place only one year hence. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani finishes his tenure in six months and good for Nawaz, he seems disinterested in politics. He has to be careful in not selecting another Musharraf.
The Economist has tagged Sharif as the best bet for Pakistan. Two-thirds of 185 million Pakistanis are under 30, and 40 million of the 70 million 5 to 19 years old are not in school. Less than one million Pakistanis paid taxes last year. Power blackouts are endemic. Clean water is increasingly scarce. Growth is three per cent, too little to keep up with population demand.
Even as Americans shuns them, US aid to Pakistan goes on. The military has received 18 F-16 jet fighters, 20 Cobra attack helicopters, six C-130 transport aircraft and a Perry class frigate and much more in the last decade alone. It must be unfortunate for the Pakistanis to learn that a recent survey of 21 countries by the United States-based Pew Research Center found their main ally, China, and many Muslim countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, see Pakistan as a rogue state. Army continues to be popular among the masses. Nearly 78 per cent Pakistanis believe that India is a greater threat than Taliban and Al-Qaeda. India already has a 2,430-km-long fence to prevent bad elements crossing over. Similarly, Iran is building a 700-km fence, and that will make Pakistan the most fenced state of the world. About 80 per cent Pakistanis have poor opinion of the United States, the country that is preventing them from becoming a failed state by giving billions of dollars in aid.
Today, India’s economy is eight times larger than Pakistan and by 2030, it will be 16 times larger. But an increasingly prosperous Indian middle class does not want a failed neighbour. New Delhi will have to closely follow the political machinations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in 2013. The tag “Most countries have an Army, but Pakistani Army has a country” remains. Will Nawaz Sharif be able to use this opportunity to wrest control of domestic, foreign and security policy from the Army? National consensus will be required to revive the economy, restore foreign exchange reserves and combat terrorism. Critical event ahead is the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. China’s concerns on Islamic terrorism will have to be addressed. Nawaz Sharif is likely to let his business acumen decide his dealing with the Americans. There is pressure from Saudis and Americans to review the Iran pipeline deal. He will have to engage with the US and India without compromising Pakistan’s national interests. He will have to take a call.