Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has returned from the salubrious environment of the UK to the suffocatingly humid, energy-sapping climate of the country.
Not that he would feel the change. The elite of this land have mini UKs built for them all over the country. Their homes, offices, logistics are custom-made for total comfort. Their room temperatures are controlled, the electricity supply is ensured, and security to life and limb guaranteed – all at taxpayers’ expense whose challenged existence bankrolls the luxuries of their rulers.
Even politically, PM Sharif would not feel much of a difference between now and when he left the country many weeks ago. The same issues that defined the contours of national politics then are in play now: the Panama leaks, protests, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Karachi, Afghanistan, India etc. The nation is without Abdul Sattar Edhi, God’s gift to humanity, but that hardly matters to the cut and thrust of politics.
The same futile battles that the PM had to pull out of temporarily are being waged even today. Go Nawaz Go vs Ro Imran Ro. We love you Raheel vs Goodbye General Sahib. MQM vs the Rangers. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing spectacular. Nothing to worry about. But a slightly different perspective changes the scene for the prime minister altogether. The calm in the country in his absence and his smooth landing back into the familiar fray are misleading indicators of what might lie ahead for him and his government. His plate is full of troubles; whether he sees it that way or not is a different matter.
The foremost trouble is connected with politics, his as well as his opponents. He left home for medical treatment and the system operated on auto for weeks on end. It was mere deception designed for media consumption to say that he was hands-on from there. He wasn’t. Bureaucrats, individual ministers, and the omnipresent Ishaq Dar did their thing, and the government seemed to function as the government was functioning when PM Sharif was around.
This is a fairly innocuous version of the minus-one formula that his opponents have been clamouring for a long time and for less than noble reasons. For someone like Nawaz Sharif who has spent a lot of time and energy painting a personal portrait of indispensability to the democratic system and indeed to his own government, this episode provides a contrasting evidence of a contrary reality. There can be a Muslim League government without him, which can run in an orderly fashion and even pass a budget.
So is he really the centrepiece of the present political order? Does his presence matter so much that only a deluge will follow in case he is removed from the scene? These are pointed questions that directly challenge the standard thesis we hear from PM Sharif’s information handlers – that the entire edifice of democracy will crumble and fall without him. These are also hugely important points in the context of the case that his opponents have built for his disqualification on grounds of alleged financial misdeeds.
While the judiciary focuses only on the legal side of cases that involve political personalities’ future, it does keep a keen eye on the implications of application of the law. Sometimes considerations of a system’s breakdown and unconstitutional steps following political disruption hold them back from ruthlessly enforcing the law. In case of PM Sharif the judiciary now has a case study of sorts to look at in which the man spent a long time out of office and was practically dysfunctional and yet the constitutional order did not feel his absence. This angle can become a strong point of consideration in the days ahead.
PM Sharif’s absence and how little it impacted the system would have been a completely different story if he had been associated with a strategic agenda, a national vision, and a large plan of action whose completion hinged on his leadership. In his third tenure, Nawaz Sharif stands for nothing grand, nothing all encompassing, not even a roadmap that he can claim to have designed with his own hands as his trademark.
We have heard the usual press release terms like stability, prosperity, democracy, which are quite meaningless in the absence of a national strategy with clearly articulated and identifiable elements. The CPEC pre-dates this government and will outlast it too. Operation Zarb-e-Azb is a continuation of previous operations. Karachi peace has been a recurring plan that cannot be nailed down to the brainwave of his government.
Other than that there is very little to know Nawaz Sharif’s vision by. Passing budgets, stabilising the economy, improving law and order etc are things that every government has to attempt and deliver on. These are routine affairs that cannot be confused with ideas that set leaders apart from the jostling herd of politicians.
If truth be told, PM Sharif has been at best a slapdash politician in the herd – a strange mix of temerity and timidity, obsessed with only one thing: surviving another month in power by gaining numerical strength over clumsy opponents whose weaknesses are his only strength. He has stood for nothing, nationally campaigned for even less and has chosen to be defined by counter-punching his nemesis, Imran Khan.
His three plus years in power are best summed by a description Elif Shafak’s bountiful pen delivers in one of her novels about lazy fishermen looking for a catch in waters below a bridge, catching next to nothing after spending endless hours and yet be perfectly happy. “How amazing was this ability to achieve plenty by achieving little, to go home empty-handed yet still satisfied at the end of the day.”
PM Sharif’s core problem is that he sees plenty in little, and does not think how imperative it has become for him to radically rethink his political purposes, aims and strategies. He is consumed by the fear of being cut off in the middle by a military-backed manoeuvre and has designed his entire governance plan because of that one fear.
His politics of survival has taken the better of a much-needed reform agenda that can genuinely put the country on a durable track of sustainable progress. He has avoided institutional reform, spurned participatory approach to decision-making, jettisoned party cadres for a closed circuit of favourites, and has relied on media blitz and propaganda in place of a heart and mind campaign touching people’s lives.
As a result he has become a distant ruler, super elitist in lifestyle, monarchical in policymaking, and satisfied in the company of cronies who tell him every day that he has caught plenty by catching little and he can go to his bed (in Jati Umra or in London) feeling happy and redeemed.
There are many indications that PM Sharif has returned from the UK with the same mindset and attitude that he went away with. That he does not care much about negative feedback on his half-cooked explanations on his progenies’ offshore companies; that he is least bothered about even symbolically suggesting that with a renewed heart he will at least attempt a reworked version politics. The most unmistakable indication, however, is his journey back home on a dedicated plane, showing that he is picking up the thread of power where he had left it.
That makes him a reduced leader, whose financial world is a mystery he has as much interest in solving as he has in being sensitive to declining public trust in political leadership. If he continues on the same path PM Sharif might soon find that his numerical strength is a meaningless number irrelevant to the needs of the treacherous times the country has entered into.
He has come back to the same country and to the same job but his stature and standing has suffered in his absence. He is now healthy. He was already wealthy. But is he wiser than before? Hopefully, yes; but if he is not, no spin doctors will be able to help him portray the image of a leader whose presence is critical to survival of democracy in Pakistan.