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PM Shehbaz Sharif’s prime challenges

The best thing that could have happened to Shehbaz Sharif on Monday, April 11, 2022 is not that he was voted to the office of the prime minister of Pakistan by the Majlis-e-Shoora. The best thing that could have happened to him is that he woke up on this Monday to images of a very impressive display of street power on Sunday night, commanded by Imran Khan and the PTI, merely a day after former PM Khan was ousted in a delayed vote of no confidence motion. Those images should jolt him into new and uncharted governance territory. It has happened before.

In October 2011, whilst Shehbaz Sharif was chief minister of Punjab, a similar display of street power at Minar-e-Pakistan by Imran Khan prompted the genesis of ‘Punjab Speed’ – which is now the principal appeal of the younger Sharif brother. An unprecedented and incomparable capacity to mobilize the Pakistani public sector to deliver quick, high quality and modern public sector action.

Arguably, nothing is more important for a country of 220 million, with half the population below the age of 23. The cities, roads, highways, broadband and public discourse that these young Pakistani will traverse in the coming decades needed to be built twenty years ago. Pakistani politics has delayed the arrival of a Shehbaz Sharif – as it has delayed so many badly needed changes in Islamabad. But has he arrived too late?

The political spectrum that the new prime minister will need to manage has never been this fractured – certainly not since the late 1960s and in the run up to Partition in 1971. Today, the executive capabilities of Shehbaz Sharif will simply not be good enough, not even within his own party, where he is often criticized for not being more aggressive in posturing as a visionary. His internal dialogue is rather simple: “Why should I pose and pretend, when I stand and deliver?”.

As prime minister, his capacity to deliver will need to be supplemented by one of two things: either the capacity to generate and sustain massive public support through effective and relentless engagement with the media (unlikely), or the ability to deliver so much, so quickly, that his constituency grows dramatically within the timeframe he has to deliver (also unlikely, but more doable). I suspect this timeframe will last no longer than four months from when he takes oath.

To add to this challenge, the new prime minister faces two substantial management problems that he has never faced in Punjab. The first is a diverse and self-confident set of powerful political cabinet members. Shehbaz Sharif is all ears for experts that challenge his ideas in roll-up-your-sleeves meetings about solving dengue, or providing a laptop to every student, or establishing more renewable energy capacity – but he has had little patience for pork-barrel seeking MPAs, or the niceties that such engagement often requires. His internal dialogue there tends to be: “Why should I waste my time on meetings that won’t help build the next bit of infrastructure or won’t help reduce red tape for citizen-government interactions?”

This internal dialogue will run into real problems with a cabinet that includes the PPP, JUI-F, MQM, BNP-M, BAP, ANP and perhaps even the PTM, and most complicatedly, members of the Maryam Nawaz Sharif wing of the PML-N. And that represents the second of the two management problems he will face. In Lahore, he was the PML-N, save maybe one or two House of Nawaz loyalists that were always in the room. In Islamabad, he will be Shehbaz – the guardian of Nawaz’s PML-N – with plenty of implicit and explicit engagement from Maryam Nawaz Sharif. It is a starkly different challenge that will require uncharacteristic patience from a man that wants to move at ‘Punjab Speed’.

For a federal system of government, Punjab Speed itself is a provincial concept, in spirit and in letter. Since the 18th Amendment, speed is almost designed as a tool meant only for the provinces – that’s where the bulk of service delivery lies. In education and health, where the bulk of public sector employment lies or in public infrastructure, where the farm to market roads get built, it will be incredibly difficult for any prime minister to enact immediate results. The federal government is not bereft of responsibility for nation-building – but it is, by virtue of being a federal system, designed as a slow and tortured beast. This will frustrate the instinct that he is most comfortable with: the breakneck-speed exercise of executive authority.

No elected public official in my memory has the demonstrable track record of sustained endurance and work ethic that Shehbaz Sharif does – but this work ethic is despised almost universally, within his own party, in his key opposition, amongst his allies, and perhaps most importantly in the wider public sector. He has exacting standards of his colleagues – politicians and bureaucrats. There is a reason why the network of civil servants that work under him is limited. Only so many among the civil service are excited by the prospects of twenty-hour workdays. But the fact that this is a liability for him, rather than a strength, is part of the series of ironies he must face.

Less ironic and more toxic are the narratives already ingrained against him from day one. PTI supporters have popped the Imran Khan pill and swallowed, and so has a substantial and very influential section of the pro-Khan media. Does he engage or ignore? Both on the corruption narrative and the newer, foreign conspiracy or ‘imported government’ narrative, the PTI attack machine will be relentless and unforgiving. How much of his energy can possibly be devoted to these attacks with the series of challenges that haunt him already beckoning?

Three stints as chief minister, one as leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, some jail time sprinkled in, and an internally fractured political machine all represent a series of experiences that make Shehbaz Sharif perhaps the country’s first properly groomed prime minister. But none of this grooming will help him deal with perhaps the three most profound complexities that await him.

The first is an economic crisis. He must increase petrol prices, literally, on his first day in office. Any delay will be irresponsible – notwithstanding how irresponsible Imran Khan’s deliberate reduction and suppression of petrol prices was. The inflationary impact of his first three to four weeks in office is a liability he will need to mitigate through deft diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, China and the United States – as well as a substantial increase in BISP / Ehsaas programme disbursements.

The second is civil-military relations. Huge military involvement in governance during the one-page era of the 2018-2022 period almost necessitated the fallout prompted by Notification Gate. The irritants that will upset the delicately laid dastarkhwaan of the PML-N-PPP-JUI-F alignment with Rawalpindi all sit in plain sight. How long of a honeymoon will pro-Pindi media offer Shehbaz Sharif? How soon will the TLP return to the streets and on which issue will it agitate? How soon before a reconciliation between Pindi and Imran Khan takes place? And which of the coalition members of government will begin to distance itself from the stink of inflation first?

Finally, there is the timing of the election. There will be no EVMs in the next election. The infrastructure and proof of concept for it just don’t stand. More important will be the flow of promotions, postings and extensions in Rawalpindi. Will that set of decisions prove to be the equivalent of Dawn Leaks or Notification Gate for Shehbaz Sharif? The evidence from our recent history is not encouraging. But Shehbaz Sharif has created precedents in governance before. For the sake of institutional, economic, and political wellness and stability in Pakistan, every Pakistani should be praying for him, and for the country. We are entering even more uncertain and turbulent times than what has transpired since November 2021.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "PM Shehbaz Sharif’s prime challenges," The News. 2022-04-12.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political machine , Political wellness , Diplomacy , Governance , Politicians , Imran Khan , PM Shehbaz Sharif , Saudi Arabia , China , TLP , PTI , PPP