View from Pakistan

In Pakistan, the moment of an independent foreign policy initiative is gone with Nawaz Sharif

The media will play a critical role to ensure that any new political power stays the course of an accepted narrative of nationalism.

Nawaz Sharif is gone, like all previous Pakistani prime ministers unable to finish his term as prime minister. Photos of people distributing sweets at his disqualification to hold any public office were the only ones shown on television. But a far greater numbers around central and north Punjab in Pakistan protested and are saddened by the decision.

This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that the most politically potent province of Punjab was treated this way by the powerful Punjab-dominated establishment. But it is also a fact that the protests are temporary, which is mainly due to the fact that a mass political action would now challenge the prospects of Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif from taking control of the party and the situation. Interestingly, this is the Sharif that the establishment reputedly trusted more than his elder brother.

While Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has been appointed as interim prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif’s selection to replace Nawaz Sharif as leader of the party and possibly the next prime minister also means that the Sharif family has opened itself up for further negotiations with the permanent establishment of the state. This time around the older brother, who is more popular in Punjab, will probably get the votes to build the party’s influence and thus put pressure on the establishment to let the younger brother play his role.

The fact that Nawaz Sharif did not trust anyone else in the party indicates his bid to keep the family empire together but also denotes the larger issue with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) – it is a party that has not built a deep political structure but depended upon key players at the local level. This is rather an elitist structure that delivers votes but doesn’t impress the man on the street to come forward and protest a development that does not bode well for the country’s political future.

Image: AFP
Image: AFP

Apathetic political culture

In fact, a larger number of people were noticeable by the way that they carried on with their lives as normal while the decision was announced on Friday, July 28. The people’s reaction indicates the sorry state of the country’s elitist political structure from which the common man has become disconnected.

Like the rest of South Asia, Pakistan’s political system represents a patronage-based culture in which corruption and kleptocratic redistribution is a given. People benefit through being part of one group or the other. From the perspective of Nawaz Sharif’s political future this means that the establishment would make an effort not to let him portray and project himself as a political victim. Also, Shahbaz Sharif might be used to negotiate Nawaz Sharif’s departure from politics – and perhaps from the country.

Shahbaz Sharif, even if he manages to establish himself, will not be able to bring the same kind of excitement to the political scene as his elder brother. Shahbaz Sharif has no interest in challenging the powerful military establishment or having an independent view on foreign policy – or any other matter.

A new phase

Indeed, this is a new phase in Pakistan’s political future in which the media will play a critical role on the side of the establishment to ensure that any new political power stays the course of an accepted narrative of nationalism. Nawaz Sharif seemed to have challenged the establishment’s perspective by arguing for normalising relations with neighbours like India and Afghanistan in a different way. His primary mistake of course was that he entirely disconnected foreign policy from domestic politics. He thought that he could keep doing things like passing the cyber security law to further the power of the establishment with little impact on his own overall influence and foreign policy goals.

In any case, whoever comes to power will now remain within limits as far as far as the traditional foreign and security policy paradigm is concerned. The moment of an independent foreign policy initiative is lost. Indeed, one of the prognosis for the PML(N) is that it will get divided and twisted into newer forms, a state of affairs that will send shivers down the spine of other leaders and keep them committed to a certain line of action to ensure their survival.

From the establishment’s perspective, the country has to fight a long drawn battle to gain influence in South Asia and against a diplomatic and political onslaught by India and the United States. This is not a time to see political actors on different pages. The effort will be to create the ethos of Modi’s India but packaged differently.

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is a noted scholar and commentator on Pakistan and author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.

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