Sunday June 16, 2024

Irrelevant millions?

By Farhan Bokhari
September 27, 2023

As former prime minister Nawaz Sharif prepares for his return to Pakistan next month after four years in exile, his party’s target for defining his successful re-entry to politics is just one: the number of people who throng the Lahore airport to receive their leader.

Already, the one million mark has begun to be repeated almost on a daily basis as if fewer supporters making up the reception line would be no less than an insult to the former prime minister. It is an ill-advised focus in more ways than one.

Sharif, driven out of power in 2017 following a Supreme Court verdict on undeclared overseas wealth, must still reconcile with the legal obstacles surrounding his return, and that too with full freedom. Theoretically, upon his return Sharif is all set to return to captivity as an absconder from Pakistan’s law, irrespective of subsequent happenings on surface and more importantly behind the scenes.

And politically, the former prime minister must face hard questions over appearing to enjoy the daily life in London’s upper class neighbourhoods, almost four years after leaving Pakistan with a promise to return within a month following urgent medical treatment. In sharp contrast to the image of a reportedly ailing Sharif with complicated health related challenges ahead of his 2019 departure, the former prime minister’s hale and hearty demeanor soon after arriving in the British capital, said much about the fact versus fiction over his well being.

Meanwhile, two key fronts must haunt Sharif in view of his choices.

On the one hand, his recent demand for taking former COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and former ISI chief Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed to task over Sharif’s 2017 ouster, underlines the determination of the former premier to confront the former establishment. It is a step that comes as a powerful reminder of Sharif similarly seeking to overpower the Pakistan army’s top leadership through one route or another, as he has repeatedly sought to do in the past.

Sharif’s long-term obsession with abruptly targeting a succession of army chiefs has always been a futile move. In 1999, he was left with the proverbial egg on his face following a clumsy move to remove the late General Pervez Musharraf – with a subsequent coup that cost Pakistan’s politicians dearly in the coming years.

Confronting an army chief – past or present – runs the risk of provoking an institution which remains central to Pakistan’s stability, or whatever remains of it. And more importantly, a new tussle of this kind will only take Pakistan off the track from the more vital challenge of stabilizing the country’s broader politics and its derailed economy.

On the other hand, Sharif and his PML-N must accept responsibility for adding to the many woes of Pakistan’s mainstream population during the 16-month tenure of the last elected government. Brought into power following the ouster of former prime minister Imran Khan, Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif only ended up presiding over a downward drift.

Barring relative return to economic stability during the younger Sharif’s first six months of his tenure, disaster followed after Ishaq Dar was installed as the finance minister at the call of the London-based elder Sharif. The happenings during Dar’s tenure provide enough fuel to compile a textbook case of exactly how not to stabilize an already weakened economy. In sharp contrast to early signs of stability under the watch of former finance minister Miftah Ismail, Dar set the stage for a clash with the IMF.

His public remarks such as ‘I know how to deal with the IMF’ or ‘I don’t care about the IMF’ only blew in his face and vitiated the atmosphere in more ways than one. Moreover, the clumsy and eventually failed target of strengthening the rupee versus key foreign currencies, notably the US dollar, only fueled unprecedented inflation and a balance of payments crisis. Ultimately, the present IMF loan came on the final day of the last financial year, but only after prime minister Shehbaz Sharif went over the finance minister’s head to raise the matter directly with the head of the IMF.

Notwithstanding Dar’s history, Sharif’s camp and Dar himself continue to defend the former finance minister who has conveniently returned to London since the former government’s tenure ended. For Sharif, as he prepares to return home, setting the record straight as much as carving out a credible path to a future of Pakistan’s economy armed with credible reforms remains a vital challenge.

Unless the controversy surrounding Nawaz Sharif versus the army plus the former leader’s take on the economy is resolved, there’s likely to be just a dim light for the PML-N at the end of the tunnel. Mobilizing scores of supporters to receive the former leader at Lahore airport is in danger of becoming just a sideshow, as the centre of the show remains hinged to other matters.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs. He can be reached at: