In Pakistan, new script, old actors - Hindustan Times
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In Pakistan, new script, old actors

Oct 25, 2023 10:16 PM IST

Nawaz Sharif’s homecoming seems to be part of a structured script that underwrites the country’s politics and the fluid nature of its civil-military relations

Being exiled, and then returning home to retake power is a template in Pakistan that has steadily consolidated over the past four decades. The pattern was established by the late Benazir Bhutto when she returned from exile in London in April 1986 — almost exactly seven years after her father’s execution. Two and half years later in December 1988, she became the first female prime minister (PM) of a Muslim country. Less than two decades later, she was to end another exile and return to Pakistan in October 2007, only to be killed in a terrorist attack before the year was over. But her party went on to win the election and form the next government.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses his supporters.(AFP) PREMIUM
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses his supporters.(AFP)

Nawaz Sharif was deposed as PM by a military coup in October 1999, then imprisoned and went into exile before returning to Pakistan in November 2007. He became PM for the third time in 2013, before being deposed and imprisoned again, and finally forced into exile again. All this seems part of a structured script that underwrites Pakistan’s politics and the very fluid nature of its civil-military relations.

With Sharif’s latest return, there is the obvious irony of the unthinkable having happened. Imran Khan, the Pakistan army’s chosen one since at least 2014, is now in jail with his party in tatters. He has been displaced as the army’s favourite by Sharif who, for the last 25 years, has been the politician the army has had the greatest reservations about and with whom it has a history of bitter conflict.

So, should we see this latest change as simply the habitual shuffling of a political pack of cards that the Pakistan army periodically resorts to? It may look so on the surface, yet beneath the superficial resemblances are a cluster of real changes: In Nawaz Sharif’s political position; in the civil-military dynamic; and most of all, in Pakistan as a whole.

There were some who were disappointed at Sharif’s accommodative and non-confrontational stance as was evidenced by his speech on arrival in Lahore. He had “no wish for revenge”, he said, and he did not delve into his rough interface with the army, which saw him being unseated at its behest in July 2017 in what was effectively a judicial coup. During that tenure as PM, one factor that explained the tensions that emerged with the then army chief was the effort to impose some manner of accountability on Pervez Musharraf. Letting bygones be bygones would, therefore, be a wise policy to follow.

Sharif’s arrival in Pakistan marks the beginning of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s general election campaign. The expectation, of at least his followers, is that with their leader back at the helm, the popular mood will turn in their favour. Through his political ups and downs, one of Sharif’s advantages has been that his party has remained largely united and immune to the pressures of the military. Whether the PML(N) will be able to distance itself from the severe economic downturn from the second half of 2022 when it controlled the government is, however, uncertain.

So is the question of Imran Khan’s future and whether the huge popularity and fan following sometimes attributed to him will be a factor of consequence in the general elections sometime early next year. At present, the general assessment in Pakistan veers towards the conclusion that the PML(N) will be the leading vote catcher and its alignment with the army will help it a great deal.

So, things appear to be moving in Sharif’s favour. Yet there are some changes that he will find it hard to come to terms with. For almost a quarter of a century, Sharif has intuitively understood a fundamental contradiction in Pakistan — the widespread influence and acceptance of the army coexists with a significant reservoir of latent anti-military sentiment on the ground. Much of Sharif’s politics in the past was also based on using this sentiment against the army. He has now learned that in the long term, this is a losing game. In repositioning himself to maintain a smooth interface with the army, he may well concede almost entirely the anti-military space to Imran Khan. How this dynamic will play out will be a principal theme of Pakistan’s politics in the months ahead.

An even bigger change lies in Pakistan’s overall context. After a long time, the country is unable to leverage its geopolitical location to secure better economic terms or larger doses of financial assistance. The long history of great power involvement in Afghanistan — first the Soviets and then the Global War on Terror and the United States (US) — had created just that position for Pakistan.

For many in its security-oriented elite, this was a kind of geopolitical sweet spot and it did secure for Pakistan significant amounts of external aid. That phase of AfPak history is now over. Pakistan finds that its position on the priority list of major powers has come down. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine and the new situation now in West Asia all contribute to a situation where Pakistan is unable to leverage geopolitics to secure better economic terms. This is in the midst of a deep economic crisis, spiralling inflation and a rapidly worsening national security situation with deep domestic roots but also linked to its Afghanistan policy.

Is Sharif better equipped to handle this novel situation for Pakistan? At least some in Pakistan would say yes, and that is because of his long history of believing that it is in Pakistan’s interest to improve and mend relations with India. Time will tell whether he will be more successful in this endeavour this time around.

TCA Raghavan is a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. The views expressed are personal

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