The recent general elections in Pakistan saw a face-off between three national political parties. They were the ruling Tehriq-e-Insaaf Party, led by Imran Khan on the one hand, and the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto, together with the Pakistan Muslim League, led by Shahbaz Sharif, on the other.
But, behind the scenes, there had been a tussle between the military led by Army Chief General Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan. These differences assumed serious dimensions, over the selection of a new head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Imran Khan tried to have his own nominee, but had to yield to the wishes of the Army Chief. It is no secret that General Bajwa and the military establishment worked behind the scenes to ensure that Imran Khan did not get a majority.
Shahbaz Sharif faces serious challenges in dealing with Pakistan’s internal troubles. He has proclaimed that his government would “soothe the wounds of the nation” and “not indulge in politics of revenge”. For good measure, he added: “We will not send people to jail for no reason”. In short, he ruled out resort to arbitrary violation of human rights, as practised by the Imran Khan dispensation.
But there are far more serious problems Shahbaz Sharif has to address. Pakistan’s GDP has fallen drastically from $315 billion to $292 billion in the past four years. Imran Khan, nevertheless, has the dubious distinction of being Pakistan’s Prime Minister who led his country when its GDP fell below that of Bangladesh.
While Imran Khan was strong in his views about relations with India, the leaders of the other two national parties in the newly elected government have more moderate views. The Peoples Party led by Bilawal Bhutto, now the country’s Foreign Minister, and his father Asif Ali Zardari have been more measured than Imran Khan when commenting on the Kashmir issue. Even the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Maulana Noraini, is not as anti-Indian as some of his compatriots. Imran Khan, however, eventually paid high tribute to India, while praising how it was winning international respect.
Shahbaz Sharif played a key role in the Sharif family’s business interests, particularly in the steel industry. The Sharif “Steel Empire,” which revolves around the giant “Ittefaq Steel Foundries”, is one of the largest steel mills in Pakistan. The family is also involved in textiles and sugar processing. Given this background, the Sharif family initially joined politics with backing from military dictator General Zia ul-Haq.
Nawaz Sharif, thereafter, moved from being the Chief Minister of Punjab to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. His younger brother Shahbaz Sharif has followed his footsteps. Shahbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, with behind the scenes backing of the Army Chief General Bajwa, after Imran Khan earned the wrath of Pakistan’s all-powerful Army.
Shahbaz Sharif is set to confront difficult problems in the coming years. Domestically, his challenges would arise from the public support Imran Khan appears to have, especially in Pakistan’s Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces. Meanwhile, the Taliban, comprising Pashtuns from Afghanistan, have set up a tyrannical government in Kabul. The Taliban government has predictably denied girls entry into schools, forced women into Purdah, and brooks no political opposition. Afghanistan’s largest minority, its Tajik population, is under siege by the Taliban, with large numbers including the leadership fleeing to neighbouring Tajikistan. Taliban ruled Afghanistan now faces resistance from its own people-resistance it ruthlessly suppresses.
But the real problem that Pakistan faces is armed resistance from the Tehriq-e-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan, which operates across the border, attacking the Pakistan Army and other targets in Pakistan. Pakistan has responded by bombing TTP positions in Afghanistan. Most importantly, virtually no Pashtun in Afghanistan, or in any of the tribal areas in Pakistan, recognises the Durand Line as an international border.
A similar situation prevails in Baluchistan, where China has invested millions in building the Gwadar Port, ostensibly to carry goods to and from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The port, which has been virtually mortgaged to China, is sparsely used. and the Baluch population is dismayed by the difficulties faced in seeking entry to the main port in their homeland. Baluch discontent, arising from years of neglect, has led to an armed insurgency, for which India is conveniently blamed, periodically.
It also appears that like the Chinese built Port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the Gwadar Port is set to be an economic White Elephant. Shahbaz Sharif will, therefore, face a very difficult economic situation, arising from a shortage of funds to meet essential expenditure. Pakistan is not exactly a viable destination for foreign direct investment, which totalled barely $90 million last year. While the economy of Pakistan performed relatively satisfactorily last year, with a growth rate of 3.94 per cent, the growth rate in the two previous years varied from between -0.47 per cent and 2.08 per cent.
Shahbaz Sharif is making Herculean efforts to overcome the economic crisis Pakistan faces. Pakistan will have to receive funds from the IMF to bail it out of its present travails. Receiving IMF funds will involve Pakistan tightening its belt, and imposing sharp curbs on government spending.
Shahbaz Sharif also confronts problems arising from growing foreign debt, continuing balance of payments deficits, and an abysmally low rate of national savings. Taking offence at Imran Khan’s moves to cultivate Saudi Arabia’s rivals in the Islamic world like Malaysia and Turkey, Saudi Crown Prince Salman slashed all aid to Pakistan. The UAE did likewise. But the warmth which Shahbaz Sharif was received in Riyadh, indicates that Saudi Arabia will now respond positively to Pakistan’s requirements of foreign aid .
Following the change in government in Islamabad, the US will be helpful in seeing that Pakistan’s requirements from the World Bank and IMF are met. Shahbaz Sharif will discreetly build on Pakistan’s relations with Russia and will remain forever ready to continue Pakistan’s all-weather friendship with China.
Since the Army plays a dominant role on relations with India, we cannot predict how Pakistan’s next Army Chief, who will assume office in October, will deal with cross-border terrorism. In the meantime, India should respond positively to any initiative Pakistan takes to expand trade and economic relations, or promote people to people contacts. It is unlikely that the Sharif Government will take any new initiative on Jammu and Kashmir. One will have to wait and see whether infiltration across the LoC picks up after the Himalayan snows melt.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan