Four years — productive or wasted?


Four years — productive or wasted?

Ayaz Amir

Four years is a long time. The First World War lasted four years. An American presidential term is that much. All put together Nawaz Sharif has been in power in Punjab and as prime minister for a long time. No one else in our tumultuous, accident-prone history has had the same privilege. Leaving his other terms aside, what does he have to show for the four years he has been prime minister this time?

The one word PML-N partisans repeat like a mantra is ‘mega-projects’. Ask them what their leader has done and out comes this magic word. A few projects have been inaugurated in the power sector including the Nandipur power project which was inaugurated by the prime minister one day and had to be shut the next because of a major technical fault.

The Sahiwal coal power plant, sure to be seen in coming years as an environmental disaster, we could have done without. 1200 acres of prime agricultural land destroyed for a coal-fired plant, and the imported coal to be transported all the way from Karachi, wasn’t a very bright idea to begin with. Coal is being done away with elsewhere in the world, including China, and we are rushing to embrace it.

Coal has its uses, and an energy-starved country like ours cannot be too choosy about its sources of energy, but there is also a price to be paid in terms of environmental destruction, as China is discovering for itself.

Anyway, these few projects apart, and some roads and flyovers, there is little else to boast of. Governance is no better than it was. There have been no institutional reforms, no looking into expanding the tax base which it needs no great experts to tell us we should be doing if we are not to be a basket case forever, depending on our iron begging bowl to keep things going. Exports are falling and our balance of payments is worse than it was when Nawaz Sharif took over. In proportional terms this government has contracted more in external debt than any of its predecessors.

The finance minister’s great achievement has been to take out new foreign loans in order to pay off old ones. As a self-confessed money-launderer he would be out of his job in any other country which calls itself a democracy, but as someone closely related to the prime minister he continues to be in the inner circle of power.

Given his experience if anyone should have known how to interact with the army it should have been Nawaz Sharif. But true to his record of having a rocky relationship with every army chief he has dealt with, he was not on the best of terms with Gen Raheel Sharif or, astonishingly, even his successor, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, with whom there was every reason to expect he would have a decent working relationship.

Nawaz Sharif is a sharp businessman—otherwise he wouldn’t have amassed the fortune he has—and a smart politician, his longevity in politics testifying to this. But he has his problems when it comes to army chiefs. He is used to dealing with yes-men which makes it almost axiomatic that a sustained conversation regarding any policy matter requiring some degree of depth or understanding should leave him bored and flustered. Another thing: Nawaz Sharif can’t get October 12 out of his mind, which makes him suspicious of the army.

Interestingly, once upon a time he himself was the army’s biggest political product, promoted and propped up by the Zia regime as a counterweight to the army’s then anathema, the PPP. Today he stands on the opposite side.

No army chief can dance to Nawaz Sharif’s tune which is what he expects. There is thus no solution to this problem. Benazir Bhutto had a difficult time with Gen Aslam Beg, the first army chief she had to deal with, primarily because the army command then nursed a deep distrust of the PPP. But in her second premiership she got along well with Gen Waheed Kakar and even wanted to give him an extension which he, wisely I think, refused.

In his very readable book on the Pakistan army, Shuja Nawaz writes that the Sharifs’ preferred method of dealing with senior generals was to deliver them the keys of BMW cars. They tried this stunt with Shuja Nawaz’s brother, Gen Asif Nawaz. If he had accepted the present offered him he would have been considered a jolly good fellow. When he was taken aback his behaviour aroused suspicion. There’s no known cure for such an attitude.

When Nawaz Sharif talks of a conspiracy against him he is not bringing the words to his lips but he is pointing a finger at 1) the judiciary and 2) the army. The purpose of marching down the GT Road is clear: to bring pressure to bear on these two institutions not so much to be reinstated in office—which is not going to happen—but to generate pressure regarding the cases which are to be filed against him and his family, sons and daughter, by the National Accountability Bureau as per the directions of the Supreme Court.

When Nawaz Sharif says, as he did to a group of traders in Islamabad, that the principle of civilian supremacy must be respected and he won’t bow down to any pressure his target is the army. The march down the GT Road will be a show of strength on his part. As we are seeing, the PML-N’s tone is getting more aggressive. After the Lahore journey and the expected crowds on the way, the political temperature will rise further.

Then will come the NAB references. When Nawaz Sharif has to secure bail and appear in court, when Hasan and Hussain and, to top it all, Maryam Safdar, are put to the same necessity the atmosphere will become still more charged.

As if all this was not enough we have the related drama of sexual harassment charges being levelled against Imran Khan by Ayesha Gulailai and Ayesha Ahad’s charges at a press conference, attended by PTI leaders, against Hamza Shahbaz. All these developments put together don’t give a very wholesome picture of the state of the nation.

The PML-N’s position is interesting and, at the same time, not a little anomalous. It is in power both at the centre and in Punjab. At the same time it is getting into agitation mode. But agitating against whom? Certainly not against their own prime minister or the khadim-i-aala in Lahore. Their campaign will be against the ‘establishment’, the euphemism we use for the army and its intelligence agencies. As it is, there is not much of a government functioning in Islamabad. The way things are going the danger is there will be more disorder and turmoil.

This can’t go on for very long. Something will have to give or something will need to happen and we all know what that means.

Will our so-called leaders be careful? Will they be able to check their horses? The PML-N and the PTI seem to be fighting a battle to the death. Nawaz Sharifs’ heart seems to be full of bitterness and he appears to be getting ready for another show of defiance. And the ‘establishment’, from what one can make out, appears to be fed up with him. Where can all this lead?