The writer is editor The News, Islamabad.
It’s a bit of a quandary. How does one attempt an assessment of the politics of the once selected, twice elected, twice exiled, and repeatedly duped prime minister? After all, the man must surely know his power politics. You don’t become the country’s prime minister just like that, and that too twice over. But Nawaz did. And he sent two army chiefs and two presidents packing. He got on the wrong side of the world by taking the nuclear arsenal out of the closet – and survived. He almost ordained himself the Ameer-ul-Momineen through a spate of constitutional amendments. He politically outlived a five-year exile and a treason case to see the back of his nemesis, Gen Musharraf, only to turn the treason table and seek Mush’s trial on the same charges. He’s defied the US on more than one occasion and yet managed to get Washington to secure his return to Pakistan, along with Benazir Bhutto.
Let’s admit it, you have to be deft at both people politics and private intrigues to manage all this.
So here’s my dilemma. Why does a gentleman with such a ‘distinguished’ history suddenly appear lost in the political labyrinth? Instead of cruising along on a thoughtfully charted political course, Nawaz’s progression is becoming more about jolts and stops dictated by circumstances rather than by design. Proactive politics appears to have been replaced by reactive realpolitik. Instead of spelling out the terms of engagement for the ruling dispensation, he seems to be forever fielding the ball thrown his way by the street-smart president. Since 2008, he has repeatedly ended up walking back his talk. What is happening here?
A number of factors are in play. Critics accuse Nawaz of only talking about changing the power status quo but not actually wanting to upset the apple cart since he is lord of over 60% of the country and also optimistic of reoccupying the prime minister’s sprawling residence.
The critique has its logic. Without the state exchequer at his party’s beck and call, who could have imagined financially disastrous but politically rewarding schemes like sasti roti, expensive laptops and good old yellow cabs in cities without roads. Billions of rupees were blown away on these fanciful projects, but hey, who’s counting?
At one level, the ruling dispensation in Punjab should feel beholden to the centre for being so shamefully incompetent and criminally corrupt and by sheer comparison and default, making the Punjab administration look good. But in essence, Punjab too is a litany of failures. When the PML-N government took over, Punjab’s finances were in the black – not anymore. So, it does make sense for Nawaz and Co to ensure status quo because they will need the financial and administrative advantages of incumbency to cover the shortcomings of that very incumbency.
On the other hand, there is also the question of whether Nawaz has met too daunting an opponent in the person of Asif Ali Zardari who outsmarted him by taking him on board to facilitate the ousting of Gen Musharraf and then forced him into jump ship in the middle of the sea. I can’t help recalling a conversation with President Zardari a long time ago wherein he said, rather condescendingly and light heartedly, that had he known that, “Nawaz was such a simpleton,” he would have “made him friends with BB a long time back.” It was a statement made without malice, or at least I didn’t detect any, but a clear indicator that Zardari hardly considers Nawaz an indomitable adversary. And the fact that Nawaz too has failed to present a single credible threat to the centre must have bolstered the president’s already bursting confidence.
Nawaz Sharif’s political career has come full circle indeed. Starting off as a handpicked chief minister of Gen. Jilani and the self-professed ideological heir to late Gen. Zia Ul Haq, he was then chastened by the Musharraf experience and has become the staunchest opponent of military’s role in the country. The bitter experience of his ouster from office in 1999 has made him immensely jittery at the thought of future army intervention and his anxiety has indeed assumed the proportions of an obsessive fear. And Zardari, the consummate politician, has clearly smelled the putrid odour of this fear of Nawaz. Thus, he dangles the khaki boogey in Nawaz’s face to force him to step back from the precipice every time he dares act like a genuine opposition force.
The mantra of not doing anything that could possibly “derail the system,” in his oft-repeated words, has started ringing hollow because the possibility of khaki adventurism could not be more remote at this point in time. The media and judicial landscape of the country stands transformed. The masses are no longer a silent flock. From domestic politics to foreign policy agendas, both the GHQ and the presidency are on the same page and have worked out the happy formula of mutual appeasement and coexistence. What third force is Nawaz so scared of then, the PTI?
The politics of blow-hot-blow-cold has run its course. Political opposition can no longer be stage-managed as has been the case in the past. Instead of guiding the public and providing them leadership in matters pertaining to the public interest – including the power crisis, inflation, official corruption etc. – the Nawaz-led PML-N has only hijacked the sporadic outpourings of public discontent. Judging the mood of extreme public annoyance with the centre and not wanting other political forces and primarily Imran Khan’s PTI to capitalise on the simmering rage, Nawaz has embarked on a nationwide campaign to whip up support for that “final push” against the government. But is this latest show of opposition for real? Hardly – because the rallies are so few and so far apart that they would never be able to build the requisite momentum. And apparently that is precisely the purpose. To huff in public, and cough in private.
Simply put, during the past four years, Nawaz has been rolling with the punches but he has never put up a real fight. At one point, the PML-N talked of resigning en-masse from assemblies to pressurise the government into holding early elections – but then very conveniently forgot about this option. Now the logic goes, we don’t want to leave the field open to the treasury and expose the system to the third force. But the truth of the matter is that Nawaz’s PML-N does not want to lose control over its own provincial purse strings and is therefore willing to allow the federal government to carry on with its plunder of the state exchequer. Simple.
People like Khawaja Asif and Khawaja Saad Rafique – advocating a categorical stance on the issue of the PML-N emerging as a genuine opposition with clearly defined strategic objectives and not as an element facilitating PPP’s perpetuation in power – are turning into lonely voices of dissent. The Nawaz-led PML-N may have been making all the right noises expected of a serious and challenging opposition but cannot boast of a single tangible action to embellish its opposition credentials.
Nawaz constantly talks about the need for change in the country, of causing a paradigm shift in national priorities and objectives. And yet, what has he really changed about himself and his party besides sticking to his avowed commitment to move away from khaki flirtation? Nothing really. The party remains a personality cult. His party’s government is not even a shadow of its former self. Meritocracy has given way to sycophant mediocrity. To quote one of PML-N’s own, “For every Babar Awan in the PPP, the PML-N has a Rana Sanaullah to match.”
What would a contemporary historian writing about the house of Sharif say about its legacy: A family with a brotherly duo of a two-term chief minister and a twice-elected prime minister; a party with make-do policies aimed at short term electoral gains; a vision bereft of any real desire to transform people’s life, and mindsets. After years of being in power, Nawaz had the chance of a lifetime to leave behind a legacy to be proud of. And perhaps he still can. The question is, will he step up and do so?