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Who is Nawaz Sharif fighting for?

How we recall the first few weeks after the December 16, 2014 Army Public School attack in Peshawar depends on our specific perspectives. Beyond the searing pain of that tragedy, which bound all Pakistanis together, a lot happened in a short period of time.

On December 24, less than ten days after the attack, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced the consensus-based National Action Plan, saying that, “Our resolve to fight terror is a strong message for those who want to destroy Pakistan. Time for half-baked decisions is over.”

On January 6, the National Assembly and the Senate passed the 21st Amendment to our constitution, which formally established our post-APS ‘military courts’. The amendment became enshrined on January 7, 2015, a mere three weeks after the horror of APS.

Then-COAS Raheel Sharif made a series of trips to Afghanistan to establish clear terms of engagement. Opposition leaders made accommodations they would otherwise not have made. Imran Khan called off an agitation that had petered out in any case, the old PPP’s iconic federalists bit their tongues as they grudgingly went along with changes to the fabric of our democracy.

Perhaps most bravely and memorably, millions of Pakistani children kept going to school. Millions of mothers from Mardan to Multan, from Badin to Buner, from Khuzdar to Khanewal, sent off their children to school. Millions of fathers processed helplessness. Never shed a tear or saw a shrink or whined about privilege, or about wasted tax payments every time they breathed. Never condemned the republic that failed those children in Peshawar.

For the first few weeks after the APS attack, it felt like Pakistanis had risen to the heights of Iqbal’s Shaheens, wingspans so much wider than what we had imagined before. Soaring.

Less than a week after the 21st Amendment became law, petrol shortages across the country began to cause long lines at petrol pumps and gas stations in the most populous parts of the country. By January 19, 2015 Bloomberg, BBC and a range of international publications reported that Nawaz Sharif had cancelled his trip to Davos to attend the World Economic Forum Annual Meetings that year. By the end of January the only public official that had demonstrated any kind of remorse about the petrol shortage was a quiet, unassuming PML-N stalwart named Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. The complete incompetence at Pakistan State Oil (PSO), the Pakistan National Shipping Company (PNSC), and most of all, the Ministry of Finance, that had allowed payment issues to metastasize into an international scandal, was rewarded with the standard musical chairs shuffle of DMG-PAS-Secretariat officers changing jobs hither-thither. And Nawaz Sharif’s promise that the “time for half-baked decisions is over,” seemed to have run out of fuel, just like the publicly-owned enterprises that he allowed his relatives and the bureaucracy to destroy over three turns as prime minister.

Is it fair to link promises made in the heat of post-terror attack resolve to the performance of basic functions of government? I would frame this question differently. Is it not beyond the realms of sanity that a country wants to fight the most important fight against externally funded terrorism in the world, without having the capacity, quite literally, to keep the lights on?

Over a year before the petrol crisis of 2015, and a full ten months before the APS attack, the signs were already there. In February 2014, I wrote in this very column about the awful performance of the government in managing PIA, predicting that if Nawaz Sharif “allows accountancy driven economic management, and loyalty driven ministerial assignments to continue to autopilot Pakistan, he will not only not be able to fix PIA, he will also fail at any of the larger, more salient national challenges.”

He had already spectacularly wasted the opportunity to flex the muscle of the Pakistani people through his enviable parliamentary strength, and push home the advantage of the pro-democracy wave after the 2013 election by taking action against the Tehreek-e-Taliban. In foregoing that opening, he allowed a Raheel Sharif led Pakistan Army to take the stand he should have taken several months prior to the Karachi airport attack of June 2014.

Of course, hindsight, especially when a guy seems like he is down and out, is always 20-20. But the bad policy and questionable political judgement of Nawaz Sharif from 2013 till about now will not be the primary factors in ruining his chances at sustaining the PML-N as a viable and coherent political entity beyond the next few months. What will ruin any chance that Shahbaz Sharif or Maryam Nawaz Sharif have to ever be prime minister is the undercurrent of all of it. From the failure to act decisively against the TTP when it was his call, to his failure to prepare meaningfully for a détente with India, to his failure to establish a new kind of republic with a vision that was long, deep and wide after the APS attack, to his failure to manage the small fries problems of PIA, or the large embarrassments of petrol shortages, to the ultimate failure, dealing adequately with finding his children’s names published in the Panama Papers – through it all there is a single, overwhelming undercurrent that has defined Nawaz Sharif the leader: it is a consistent, almost relentless laziness.

The most believable and memorable portrait of Nawaz Sharif is not as the man who built up the country’s infrastructure, or returned stability to the economy, though he may legitimately claim both. The most believable and memorable portrait of Nawaz Sharif is as the man who never got angry at himself or his team, never felt the pain or the humiliation or the anguish of the people that voted for him (or those that didn’t), and never cared enough about the greatest job in the world: to serve this country from the highest office of the land.

These are not merely conceptual or philosophical problems to have. They are killer flaws. And they have meaning far beyond the questions that grip us today, as we all watch the slow-motion spiralling of the PML-N from unassailable political behemoth to incompetent fidgety wreck.

For almost five years, we have witnessed the growth of a contempt for democracy and electoral politics almost concurrently to the troubles of Nawaz Sharif. This, we know, was not all purely coincidental. But we also know that the force of people’s support is a magical, wondrous thing. It can resist all kinds of pernicious propaganda against elected leaders, what to say of a few malicious hashtags.

Since May 2013, Nawaz Sharif made no effort to mine the people’s support. Support he already had. Support that was primed to sustain him in power for several consecutive terms. Support that had a taste of the other options and responded with an emphatic reaffirmation of his status.

Sharif could have reciprocated this support by being genuinely invested in how Pakistanis felt at various times during his tenure as prime minister. Angry at seeing the country run out of fuel within weeks of APS. Distraught at the mismanagement of PIA. Crying at the funerals of soldiers that fell during the battles with the TTP. Sweating under the oppression of an absence of electricity during a midsummer’s day. Fighting back against Imran Khan during the dharna. Fighting back against Narendra Modi at Ufa. Fighting back against Altaf Hussain when he spewed hatred for Pakistan. Fighting back against the injustice faced by those in the courts system. Nothing.

Sharif had no fight. From May 11, 2013 to July 28, 2017, Sharif was too lazy to fight for the people that made him prime minister. And those who were sent out to fight for him – Daniyal Aziz, Pervez Rasheed, Nihal Hashmi, Mushahidullah etc – were often the wrong people, sent out for the wrong reasons, to fight the wrong adversaries.

Now he wants a fight. Pakistan’s civil-military disequilibrium needs fixing. Big time. For the people of Pakistan. But Nawaz Sharif wants this fight for himself, not for the people of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan have underwritten a lot. Forgiven a lot. Endured a lot. They know who fights for them and who fights for their own self.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Who is Nawaz Sharif fighting for?," The News. 2017-12-12.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Military courts , Panama Papers , Political entity , National Assembly , Bureaucracy , Terrorism , Taliban , Shahbaz Sharif , Maryam Nawaz , Pakistan , TTP , PIA , PSO