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The Nawaz Sharif effect

Nawaz Sharif left Pakistan yesterday, in search of medical recovery from a series of ailments. If things go well, he will be returning to Pakistan a fully recovered and healthy man, capable of fighting the legal and political battles that have plagued him over the last several years.

With his departure, however, it is important for both his supporters and his opponents to examine the Nawaz Sharif Effect on Pakistan. No individual was sworn in as prime minister more than he was, and no individual served as prime minister for as long as he did. Yet both the opponents of the PML-N boss, and his supporters do great injustice to the man, and the country, by painting him in the monochromatic hues that serve their respective narratives.

Sharif became finance minister of Punjab in 1981 before his 32nd birthday. Before he turned 36 he had taken oath as the chief minister of the province. In 1985, Sharif was what many PTI politicians desperately yearn to be today: young, full of new ideas, and beloved by the generals, colonels and captains that were running the country.

Of course, most Pakistanis were literally born yesterday. The average age of a Pakistani today is roughly 23 years. This means that a vast majority of Pakistanis were born in the 1990s or later. They can have no memory of 1985. This is why it is so easy for Insafians to spew such caustic hatred towards a politician that once represented everything that PTI politicians seek to be, and why it is equally easy for the Noonie faithful to pretend with the gusto of cult members that the Sharif brand is defined by opposition to the establishment.

Nawaz Sharif was coached, mentored, cultivated and nurtured as the alternative to the unpalatable Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto – the defiant daughter of Pakistan’s original ‘selected PM’, who stood up to the military at a time when there were no pats on the back from Western governments keen to embarrass Pakistani generals. Indeed, Bhutto took on the military throughout the 1980s whilst it was being serenaded by US President Ronald Reagan as a valiant force – along with Afghan mujahideen like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – for the righteous powers of global freedom. Bhutto was the original Jacinda Ardern, but for a country twenty times bigger, with problems many multiples more complex than sweet, little New Zealand.

Bhutto is central to the Nawaz Sharif story. It is Bhutto, and not PM Khan, who represents the defining political opponent of Nawaz Sharif’s career. This is no knock on the Kaptaan, but acknowledging this is critical to understanding why the Sharifs failed so spectacularly at assessing and countering Imran Khan’s rapid political ascent from 2011 to 2018. Nawaz Sharif never took the Imran Khan Effect seriously – and he and the PML-N are now paying the price.

Beating Benazir’s PPP in the 1990 elections was the first great leap forward for Sharif. Though the PPP-led PDA coalition had almost the same number of popular votes as the PML-led IJI coalition, the total swing in seats from the 1988 election was massive. Sharif and his allies gained over fifty extra seats, whilst the jiyalas lost nearly fifty. We now know, thanks to the historic 2012 Supreme Court ruling, that at least part of this swing was fueled by the illegal funding of no- PPP parties by the establishment.

History will always be torn on the duration of the love affair between Nawaz Sharif and the military. PML-N revisionists today may claim that Sharif was a lion from the very beginning, but they will certainly identify Sharif’s 1993 ouster from power at the hands of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan as solid proof that the rupture began in the early 1990s. Critics of Sharif will argue that the ‘one page’ between Sharif and the establishment lasted well into the spring of 1999. For proof, they will point to credible accounts (such as Nasim Zehra’s) of cabinet meetings as late as the early summer of 1999 in which then COAS Pervez Musharraf and his Kargil clique appealed successfully to Sharif’s vanity, prevailing over common sense, and the otherwise seemingly mature stance Sharif had on India, as manifest in his diplomacy with India’s Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Perhaps trying to assess when the civil-military disequilibrium changed Nawaz Sharif’s politics is the wrong question to begin with. A more important question is what turning point decision by Nawaz Sharif marks the defining error of his political career? That one is easy: it was the firing of General Jahangir Karamat as army chief. Karamat represented a chain of command tradition that was informed by professionalism, loyalty to the constitution, order at home, and stability abroad. The man Sharif replaced him with was on the wrong side of every single one of those benchmarks. Pakistan’s domestic politics, its international standing, and its civil-military relations have not recovered from that single, defining error by Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif’s legacy as a politician should not be defined by his relationship with the army, but sadly, and not entirely of his doing, it will be. Sharif transformed the country’s infrastructure every time he was in a position to govern the country. He is responsible for the country’s capacity to build highways (M-2 motorway), to build urban transport (Lahore Metro), and to build power plants (doubling megawattage from 2013 to 2018).

Perhaps the least celebrated, most ironic, and greatest institutional contribution was Sharif’s role in establishing the independence of the judiciary. It is so very ‘Pakistani democracy’ that the very institutional dynamic that he helped create is the one that became his undoing. In the two decades since the 1997 general election, he managed to have this dynamic bury him twice.

Sharif’s critics will continue to frame his legacy as corruption, but neither the courts nor the voters of the country have responded to this appeal. The reason is rather simple. Sharif was a net builder of the country’s infrastructure and its institutions. But he has also been a destroyer of his own legacy. Aloofness and disengagement defined his most recent run as PM, and it was these qualities that helped create the toxicity that haunts the Pakistani democratic project. An absence of communication and trust with the military helped manufacture both the 2014 dharna and the “notification is rejected” tweet. His overconfidence helped manufacture the false bravado with respect to both Imran Khan and the political and institutional fallout from Panama Leaks. Perhaps most of all, his lack of preparation for national security issues helped manufacture a gulf between the establishment and his inner circle – a gulf that troublemakers have exploited to great effect.

Nawaz Sharif is a Pakistani political giant, and his public life represents a remarkable series of successes and failures. All Pakistanis should invest time and effort in examining his life and times, but no one would benefit more from a robust and dispassionate analysis of Nawaz Sharif’s life in politics than Prime Minister Imran Khan. Someday, lessons from the Nawaz Sharif Effect may come in handy for him.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "The Nawaz Sharif effect," The news. 2019-11-20.
Keywords: Political science , Political gain , National security , Democratic project , Decision making , Global freedom , Political battle , Nawaz Shareef , Illegal funding , PTI , PML-N