Shortly before the polls closed on May 11, two reporters made a show of telling Nawaz Sharif at his party secretariat in Lahore’s Model Town that he “must win” the elections, as if the former prime minister had much choice in the matter. Sharif, who had campaigned tirelessly and was now awaiting the results of his labor, and only in the mood for small talk, was amused.
“We want you to win, sir,” insisted one of the reporters. “You are a statesman, your victory will change everything,” emphasized his companion. “We need your wisdom in power, not only for Pakistan but for the whole region.” This was routine ingratiation reporters subject those in power and those expected to come to power. Sharif understood this. But he may have relished, in some small measure, the fact that these were not Pakistanis seeking access and favor, but reporters from a notoriously strident media outfit over in India.
The election results showed that Sharif is more popular than anyone, including himself, had believed. Those who feared Pakistan must forever learn to live under fractious coalition governments that cannot take the tough decisions needed to steady its faltering economy are relieved. As the only Pakistani elected prime minister thrice, Sharif will soon head a government in Islamabad that has the strength in Parliament to actualize its agenda without it being diluted or damaged by the demands of partner parties.
Sharif’s popular mandate will allow him to tread where the previous federal government led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party would not or could not: fixing the economy without suspicion or stigma of corruption and ill-intent, and owning and rationalizing foreign policy. In so doing, Sharif may well prove himself a transformational leader not only for Pakistan, as the Indian reporter suggested, but also for South Asia.
Sharif is sending out the right signals. He told the media he would like Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he considers a kindred reformist spirit, to attend his oath-taking ceremony. Singh won’t be attending, but he has congratulated Sharif for his “emphatic victory,” expressed the desire to work with Sharif’s incoming government “in charting a new course for the relationship between the two countries,” and invited him to New Delhi “at a mutually convenient time.”
On the eve of his encounter with Pakistan’s terrorism-battered economy, as his government prepares to present Pakistan’s budget in June, Sharif’s message to India was most forthright. It reaffirmed his views during the Musharraf era, when some of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s votaries of the “two-nation doctrine” didn’t much like his trend of thought: focusing on the creation of common economic interests as the path to peace.
New Delhi has promptly accepted the soft gesture, in hopes perhaps of getting Singh off the hook of the Pakistani media, which is offended over India punishing the (Pakistani) terrorists involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But lingering skepticism in Pakistan’s unthinking media about normalization of relations with India means that Sharif will not get a free ride straightaway after opening up bilateral trade.
Another significant message has gone out to the United States, whose president has also congratulated Sharif. “The United States and Pakistan have a long history of working together on mutual interests,” said a statement from President Barack Obama, “and my administration looks forward to continuing our cooperation with the Pakistani government that emerges from this election as equal partners in supporting a more stable, secure, and prosperous future for the people of Pakistan.”
Sharif’s government will have the strength to actualize its agenda without it being diluted or damaged.
Sharif wants an end to U.S. drone strikes and to “facilitate” the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan, where a civil war may well ensue after the Americans start leaving by the end of this year. Sharif’s statement has pointed to his experience of dealing amicably with America, but everybody knows that all foreign-policy matters, especially when they relate to India and the U.S., have to get a nod from the Pakistan Army, which has recently concluded the process of disturbing the country’s normal tenor of ties with both these important powers.
The trouble with the U.S. goes much deeper than it looks. This time, Pakistan faces opposition from both the Pentagon and the CIA as the Obama administration continues to ignore the less abrasive course of diplomacy through the State Department. The charge-sheet of betrayals leveled against Pakistan is so long that Sharif may find it difficult to finally climb the cliff of reconciliation with Washington.
Vali Nasr, a former adviser to Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, in his book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, complains about the White House’s abandonment of diplomacy of engagement with Pakistan after “evidence” provided by the Department of Defense and the CIA about Pakistan Army’s involvement with terrorism in Afghanistan. Nasr agreed with Holbrooke that Pakistan, and not Afghanistan, was the problem state, and recommended engagement rather than coercion and punishment. Holbrooke died in 2010 waiting for the White House to give his planned diplomacy a proper hearing.
People close to Sharif say he is determined not to give another extension to the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who is due to retire later this year. Kayani has also stated that he is not seeking to remain in office beyond November. Otherwise, Sharif’s messaging to the Punjabi-dominated Army is nonthreatening and is, in fact, clearly friendly. The problem, however, with any civilian leader trying to change the conflictual paradigm in which the Army is embedded is that the next Army chief may be even more dogged in his resolve to mould Pakistani politics in favor of an isolationist foreign policy. Nasr explains the military mindset:
“India and Pakistan had distinct interests in Afghanistan and were deeply suspicious of each other’s intentions. They had backed opposite sides during the Taliban’s war on the Northern Alliance in the 1990s and continued to see Afghanistan’s future as a zero-sum game that could change the balance of power between them. India had invested more than a billion dollars in the development of Afghanistan and was keen to keep its foothold there. Pakistan thought that any Indian presence in Afghanistan would inevitably give India a base in its strategic rear. Indians complained about Pakistan’s support to terrorism and the Taliban; every conversation with Pakistanis on India’s role in Afghanistan seemed to end with charges that India supported Baloch separatists operating out of Kabul.”
Sharif is a man who believes in building roads both inside Pakistan, as an extension of his Lahore-Islamabad Motorway, and across borders to (so far) India. This chimes with Indian Prime Minister Singh’s own “connectivity” thesis presented at various summits of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. But a more encompassing vision, which the world will support, is an international trading highway joining South Asia and Central Asia through Afghanistan. Will Sharif go for it to rid Pakistan of its internal ideological crisis through this economic panacea? Pakistan is strategically important because it is a median state joining two regions in Asia. The military mind stakes this importance to “blocking passage to gain advantage,” while the civilian mind thinks strategic importance will only be gained after allowing passage. The world agrees with the latter view.
The road to stability, peace, and prosperity—key themes for Sharif on the campaign trail—passes through the rocky, restive parts of the country abandoned to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The May 11 elections for the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies did not offer a level playing field to all parties. The Taliban skewed the stage by warning that they would target the three “liberal” parties—PPP, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and Awami National Party—who were part of the outgoing government. They did. At the same time, they were soft on Sharif and his party and Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, agreeing with what these center-right parties have said so far about foreign policy and internal security.
The PPP, MQM, and ANP should have boycotted the elections after the Taliban threat but they didn’t, most probably because they wanted out from the system for now. Defeated ANP leaders in Peshawar, a city controlled by the Taliban, were visibly relieved while gracefully accepting the victory over them of Khan’s PTI. Sharif’s alleged compact with banned terrorist organizations also paid off. The Taliban left the Punjab alone on Election Day.
Sharif’s party swept the Punjab. It also did well in south Punjab, thanks to its “pax” with Sipah-e-Sahaba—now in the field as Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. The magic spell of the PPP in southern Punjab was finally broken. Leaders who ignored the fact that the south was actually putty in the hands of Taliban affiliates were finally disabused of their democratic romanticism. One Sahaba leader, Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi, actually took advantage of the law’s gray area and the pusillanimity of the courts in the face of terrorist violence, and ran for Parliament from Jhang, epicenter of Pakistan’s sectarian war. He lost to a PMLN candidate.
Meanwhile, the PPP’s erstwhile ruling family, the Gilanis of Multan, had to suffer the kidnapping of their son Ali Haider, in broad daylight and in front of their supporters. Everybody in Multan knew who had picked up the young Gilani. They equally knew that the Punjab police will not even try to go after the kidnappers. Predictably, Haider was not found and ex-prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced that he would get in touch with the Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to arrange his release. Perhaps on advice, he has resigned as vice president of the PPP, as a gesture of appeasement to the kidnappers. (An earlier failed effort by the ISI to spring the son of Salmaan Taseer, the assassinated governor of the Punjab, also from the PPP, from a North Waziristan terrorist prison gave the world a measure of the uncertainty of state control over its nonstate actors.)
Those who ignored the fact that south Punjab was actually putty in the hands of Taliban affiliates were finally disabused of their democratic romanticism.
Pakistan’s most frightening nonstate actors, used by the military establishment to attack beyond its borders, are located in south Punjab. One terrorist outfit ensconced in a madrassah in Bahawalpur is linked to Al Qaeda. In the 1990s, it broke away from a larger entity whose leader today reportedly lives in an Islamabad “safe house.” He handled Osama bin Laden’s mail from Abbottabad before bin Laden was killed by the Americans, and was inducted into the Defense of Pakistan Council demonstrations staged against the PPP-led government’s policy of starting free trade with India. Gilani most probably knows who could help in getting his son released.
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the “liberal” ANP did not come out to campaign knowing that Taliban warlord Tariq Afridi of the Orakzai tribal agency had the run of the province and could kill with one call from his cellphone to his captive suicide-bombers. (ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan relocated to Islamabad long ago.) PTI walked triumphantly into Peshawar, controlling more seats in the provincial assembly than any other party.
Sindh and Balochistan were shaken by terrorist attacks and a number of polling stations were affected.
In Sindh’s capital, Karachi, two or three kinds of violence were in evidence. The parties accused each other of foul play—recalling the drubbing they had been giving one another in the past—while ignoring the unmistakable signature of the Taliban, who now partially rule the city through their “courts.”
Balochistan was not spared the routine mayhem it has been subjected to since the 2008 elections. The twin terrorism of Baloch nationalists and the Taliban, leveraged in the latter case by anti-Shia Arab money, struck during the polls. First signals from Quetta are not encouraging. The Baloch parties that boycotted the 2008 elections seem to have suffered again at the hands of politically better organized Pakhtun parties. The good showing of the secular Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party—with separatism ill-concealed in its name—seemingly breaks the pattern of the rise of conservative rightwing politics in Pakistan. Together with PMLN, it will make the next government in Quetta.
But conservatism will dominate the politics of Pakistan after the elections, as in the rest of the Islamic world. (In Bangladesh, a secular Awami League has a three fourths majority in Parliament but is reluctant to follow the Supreme Court’s reversion of the Constitution to secularism with suitable amendments.) In Pakistan, rightwing parties, embracing a religion-oriented ideology of Pakistan, have traditionally robbed the religious parties of their thunder, forcing them at times to reject the constitutionally-validated Shariah under the Federal Shariat Court. This has pushed them closer to the rejectionist thinking of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
How will Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan behave after the 2013 vote? How will they tackle the relentless terror-leveraged anti-democracy demands of the extremist fringe?
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, how will Khan extend the writ of his PTI government across the province? If he manages to pacify Peshawar through his charisma and whatever is left of the police, how will he ensure the reclamation of cities like Bannu, Kohat, and Hangu from the diarchy dictated from North Waziristan rather than Peshawar? How will he push back the marauding writ of the warlord of Khyber agency, Mangal Bagh, over the businessmen of Peshawar? How will he challenge Tariq Afridi, the bloodthirsty lieutenant of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who can kill anyone he wants in the province? An overstretched Army is already struggling with the territories it has retaken in Swat, Bajaur, and South Waziristan and will not remove its focus from the “good Taliban” in Afghanistan.
Don’t Buck Ideology
When ideological issues block the way, as they do in Pakistan’s relations with India, it is recommended that one rely on indirection, on measures that don’t challenge textbook ideology but have the effect of changing it incrementally. If Pakistan wants to remove ideological fixity in relations with India and, in extension of the same thesis, with the U.S. as “India’s friend,” it must follow Sharif’s prescription of free trade with India, which in turn will depend entirely on free movement of people between the two countries. The problem of terror, too, cannot be tackled headlong; it should wait until Pakistan has completed its transition away from a policy of international isolation.
Sharif is well positioned to be the factor of change in South Asia. At no time in the past have civil society and the trading and industrial bodies in Pakistan agreed so emphatically to “opening up” with India as today. Sharif is not hampered by any commitment to opposing the “hegemony” of this or that state. He has good relations with Riyadh without sharing the qualms of some democracy purists about Saudi kingship. His attitude toward the Taliban is not set in any anti-imperialist commitment at the global level. And he has a rightwing consensus behind him in the country. His predecessor-in-power Zardari did not have this advantage and could not exploit this national consensus on India owing to incompetence and the dysfunction of national institutions.
Communist leaders of the Soviet Union tried to rescue a dysfunctional Marxist-Leninist state by changing its ideology and did not survive the experiment. On the other hand, China got rid of Maoism gradually, through a globalized economy without subverting the ideology of the state which is still led by its Communist Party. Pakistan doesn’t need a revolution. After decades of revisionist obsession with India, it needs normalization. If there’s one man who can channel and marshal the consensus to get there, it’s Sharif.
With Fasih Ahmed. From our May 31, 2013, issue.