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The PM’s tangled web

From his body language, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif does not exude the kind of confidence that one would normally expect, given his usual jauntiness. He appears to be edgy, with the kind of air that one associates with a person who is constantly looking over his shoulder.

To be fair, it is not exactly the most opportune time to become prime minister of a country that is wondering how it is going to make its next debt payment. Analysts think that Shehbaz Sharif was not expecting to become prime minister, and it was only after, to put it kindly, the lackluster performance of his party in the February polls that he found himself stepping into the shoes that were expected to be filled by his elder brother, Nawaz Sharif.

According to data from Gallup Pakistan, the PML-N polled an underwhelming 24 per cent of all votes cast in the February election. Its major partner in the coalition government, the PPP, garnered even less – 14 per cent of the total. This means that the party in government and its principal ally together could not even muster a simple majority of the total votes cast.

Shehbaz Sharif is also experiencing the push and pull that comes from heading a coalition government that inhibits the scope for independent decision-making.

There are, for instance, demands by the major coalition partner. Thus, the PPP can obstruct decision-making when it sees its interests being glossed over, as was evident in their objection to the appointment of Zafar Mahmood by the government as the head of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA). This appointment was reversed within 24 hours after the PPP’s strong opposition to Mr Mahmood’s proposed appointment.

Besides, Asif Zardari, the current president of Pakistan and the PPP’s co-chair, is a smart enough politician to know not to stay outside the limelight; this may prove to be a source of friction for the prime minister. Turf battles erupting between the president and the prime minister cannot, therefore, be ruled out.

Apart from the coalition parties, the powers that be have their requirements, which must be respected by any prudent prime minister in Pakistan, given how the system works.

However, the major headwind facing the government will be the austerity package expected to be imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) if and when a new loan is approved. The prime minister will have to make deeply unpopular decisions, including hikes in utility bills, petrol prices, indirect taxes, etc, which have already propelled inflation to historic highs and impoverished many Pakistanis.

The proposed new IMF agreement is a no-win situation for the government (assuming it goes through) because even if the ensuing reforms satisfy the IMF and stabilize the macroeconomic situation, the PML-N will have to pay a steep electoral price in the next election. Based on experience, a great deal of pain will be inflicted on ordinary people who are already reeling from the economic policies adopted over the past two years.

Another major challenge is terrorism, which is again on the rampage, and this harms the government’s bid to attract foreign investment. Contrary to prior belief, the previous caretaker government’s decision to deport Afghan refugees en masse has only exacerbated the situation.

To uproot thousands of people, many of whom had lived their entire lives in Pakistan and had integrated themselves into the country’s social and economic fabric, was unacceptable on humanitarian grounds. If there were criminals and terrorists embedded among Afghan nationals, as was alleged, they should have been identified and brought to book.

But to collectively punish an entire group of people by forcibly sending them back to a country that is in dire straits economically and faces food shortages was morally indefensible. It was also politically myopic since there are now many more Afghans living just across a thinly policed border harbouring resentments against Pakistan because of their abrupt mass expulsion.

Faced with a smorgasbord of challenges, what does the prime minister do? Pray that he somehow muddles through his term of office with his political reputation intact.

One ray of hope for the PML-N is the emergence of Maryam Nawaz Sharif as the chief minister of Punjab. Her appearance on television giving instructions to officials about what she expects in terms of results was highly impressive since it suggested the presence of a can-do and firm leader who is in a hurry to get positive results for the people of Punjab. Hopefully, she will be diligent in monitoring progress on the various tasks assigned by her.

In a way, Maryam Nawaz has a low bar to clear. I am still not certain that her predecessor, Usman Buzdar, has a voice. Over the three years or more that he was the chief executive of Punjab, I doubt if anyone heard him make a speech, appear on a television talk show, or engage in a live press conference. (At least I didn’t.) This leads to an important question: what was Imran Khan thinking when he appointed Buzdar as the CM of the most populous as well as the most politically powerful province of Pakistan?

One decision by Shehbaz Sharif that was decidedly a turn-off in my opinion was awarding a meagre sum of Rs2.5 million to Pakistan’s ace javelin thrower, Arshad Nadeem. This amount is insufficient to even buy a small new car today.

The sport that gets most of the accolades and funding in Pakistan is cricket. Many of our top cricketers make more than Rs2.5 million in a single year and have access to a myriad of opportunities (franchise cricket, commercial sponsorships, etc.). Besides this, they also benefit from training sessions led by international coaches, psychologists, and physical fitness instructors under the auspices of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Further, because of differences in the physical nature of the sports, a cricketer’s career has greater longevity than that of a track and field athlete.

Mr Nadeem has hardly received the kind of institutional support cricketers receive. His achievement of winning the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the silver medal at the World Athletics Games in 2023 is a tribute to his single-minded dedication to his sport and his immense talent, despite the odds stacked against him, vis-a-vis other international competitors.

In an interview, Mr Nadeem pointed out that the javelin he uses dates from 2015 and is tattered from overuse. (An international standard javelin used in competitions costs anywhere from $1000 to $2000.) He will certainly need new javelins for the Paris Olympics scheduled for July this year.

Arshad Nadeem deserves much more support than a mere Rs2.5 million. If our legislators can drive around in vehicles worth millions of rupees, then surely Mr Nadeem, who has brought honour to this country, deserves an award at least five times as much as that announced.

A plot of land in a prime residential area in the city where he resides would also be a fitting gift from the Pakistani people. Hopefully, we will also see his name on the list of persons given a civil award by the Pakistani state next time the awards are announced.

I Hussain, "The PM’s tangled web," The News. 2024-04-06.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political reputation , Politician , Elections , President Zardari , Zafar Mahmood , Pakistan , PMLN , PPP