When the history books are written on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it seems certain that one of the things his governance style will be remembered for is his various governments’ ability to convert opportunities into crises. If you disagree, please do consider this: in his previous attempt at this job, he tested Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon, and enjoyed an unprecedented parliamentary majority. What became of that? Choosing Pervez Musharraf as army chief, a long convalescence in Jeddah and later London, and the gift of the PML-Q.
PM Sharif has a track record of letting runs on the board and wickets in hand go to his head, and more importantly, to the head of the ministers and advisers he trusts most. And when that happens, wickets fall, and crises emerge. All his ministers and advisers survive, but he ends up paying the price. Friendship and loyalty in Pakistani politics – it is something special.
The PIA privatisation fiasco is a slow-motion case-in-point for the ages.
Before we get into PIA, let’s just survey the extent of opportunity and space this PM has been good enough to create for himself, and at least partly, been lucky to enjoy.
Rarely has a Pakistani prime minister enjoyed the civil-military dynamic that PM Sharif enjoys today, which is, doubtless, a credit to him, as much as it is to the army chief.
Rarely has a Pakistani prime minister enjoyed the kind of international support that he enjoys today, which is also, without question, partly a credit to him.
Rarely has a Pakistani prime minister enjoyed the kind of talent that he has at his disposal; in fact, with Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif backstopping the PML-N in Punjab as he does, there has arguably never been a stronger PM-CM combination in the country’s history. Forget the histrionics of the Bhutto-Khar combination, the Sharif-Sharif duo has built parts of Pakistan, faster than anyone imagined was possible.
To top all this off, PM Sharif is leading a country that is full of people aching to raise a Pakistani prime minister on their shoulders and proclaim to the world our arrival as a serious nation. How does a man as imperious as Imran Khan continue to survive himself in the national discourse? On the back of that desperation for leadership that Pakistanis feel, from Khyber to Karachi. To be prime minister, in times like these, is the stuff of dreams for the opportunistic and visionary politician.
No Pakistani prime minister has had this combination of demography and urbanisation work for him or her, quite like this. No Pakistani prime minister has benefited from global events, including plummeting oil prices, quite like this. No Pakistani prime minister has had an era of the professionalisation of the military fall into his lap, quite like this prime minister has had.
Barring the spiritual shadow of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, PM Sharif is the most successful national politician of his generation. His level of skill is best surmised by his worst opponents, particularly the easily-enraged angry young ranks of the PTI. If he really is no intellectual or aesthetic match for Imran Khan, imagine how much better a politician he is than Khan, to keep beating him, over and over and over again.
You have to ask some questions of a prime minister that is this good at politics, and this lucky at being in the job at times like these.
First, how does this prime minister end up with Shujaat Azeem, Mohammad Zubair, Miftah Ismail, Khurram Dastgir Khan and Ahsan Iqbal on his side, but is powerless to do anything but supplicate before the temple of the Ministry of Finance?
Second, how does this prime minister not have a coherent vision for the appropriate balance between the role of the state as a service provider, and the role of the private sector as a service provider? How can one hand build metros on sovereign guarantee loans, whilst the other is selling PIA, despite decades of sovereign guarantee loans? If running businesses is not the government’s job, then why only PIA? If running some businesses is the government’s job, but not other businesses – then what is the formula for figuring out which is what?
Third, how does this prime minister, after the burden of Model Town, and the fiasco politics that it produced on the streets of Islamabad, in the offices of PTV and at the gates of parliament, allow a protest to become resplendent with live ammunition?
Fourth, how does this prime minister, who is in his own dealings with people, incredibly humble, soft-spoken, and mild-mannered, allow members of his cabinet to regularly appear on national television to undermine his standing with the broad political opposition, and unnecessarily burn political capital?
Fifth, how does this prime minister, who is the businessman’s dream, the capitalist’s dream, the neoliberals’ dream, end up with such poor relations with the private sector that at times of crisis, big business fails to line up behind him?
Since the beginning of this government’s tenure, I have argued that PIA is a small, and token, issue. It represents nothing more than a test of Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. If you can manage to solve PIA, there may be a chance that you will be able to grapple with the bigger, more existential challenges, like creating jobs in a magnitude that reflects the needs of this country’s 100 million plus young people. But if you botch the management of the PIA challenge, then you really have to look in the mirror and ask yourself: can you be taken seriously as the leader that will lead Pakistan out of the complex quagmires that history and military dictators have landed us in?
To the West, Pakistan has to deal with an increasingly aggressive and impatient President Ashraf Ghani. To the East, Pakistan has to deal with the wily and silky smooth Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Iran, Pakistan has to deal with a new regional power with significant spoiler potential with a big wad of cash-in-hand. In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has to deal with an existentially troubled kingdom where over one million Pakistanis work, and from where they send foreign currency home.
At home, Pakistan has to deal with an intelligence community culture that has still not graduated from the jihad against the Soviet Union. The imprint on society is going to take at least a generation to remove, if work begins today. But this work, or the effort that would signify such work, is nowhere in sight. Pakistani media still allows failed movie producers and low-IQ, fake doctors to weigh in and shape the discourse on issues of national security, which often tends to include some way in which a woman, or women, can be run down.
All this doesn’t even begin to scratch at the surface of the economic needs of this country, and the fresh perspective from which they need to be tackled. Regional connectivity and integration require infrastructure, and diplomacy of a quality and speed that Pakistan has never pulled off before. The infrastructure being built today needs to take into account the carbon liabilities that the country is building up and the offsets it will need to generate. The size and scope of poverty-beating programmes need to be dramatically altered for them to have meaningful transformative impact. Most of all, to put every child in school, Pakistan would need to double its capacity of existing education facilities – and this doesn’t account for quality, which is currently terribly low.
If the prime minister can’t handle an inefficient airline with less than four dozen planes, and a few hundred protestors, can he handle any of these epic, existential challenges?
And if he can’t, where exactly is the PML-N’s swagger for 2018 coming from? Because it sure isn’t coming from low expectations. That Pakistani voter is a thing of the 1990s. And this ain’t the 1990s.