In spite of the beaming all around and the clapping on the back, the spanking new Pakistan Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, probably knows full well that he has a tough job ahead. It’s not just that the previous occupant of the chair is outside Parliament raising hell, but also that the challenges that he himself, his party and his country face are so numerous that it must be difficult to know where to start.
Shehbaz Sharif – the Consensus Man
First, the man himself. Shehbaz Sharif has always been in the shade of his brother Nawaz’s powerful political career and of his children such as Maryam Sharif, who is groomed to hold public office and is a charismatic crowd-puller. Both the Sharifs have a welter of cases against them, as does Bilawal Bhutto, who is charged in a fake accounts case wherein he is alleged to have transferred some Rs 1 billion from a business, of which he was a shareholder. Shehbaz was not just arrested in a money laundering case in September 2020 for around $7 billion but was also actually to be indicted on the very day he was to be sworn in.
The officer in charge of his case wisely preferred to go on leave, and so far, no notice has been served to his sons and co-accused Hamza, who is now in an equally harsh tussle for the chief ministership in Punjab, and Suleiman, who is residing in London. The selection of Shehbaz is, therefore, not due to legal barriers (if at all) but the fact that the major actors don’t particularly want to be the Prime Minister of a government that is to have its legal end in January 2023 – and if Imran Khan succeeds in creating another mess, which would probably be sooner than we think.
Moreover, what is vital at this point is Opposition unity, and Shehbaz is a consensus candidate for everyone, including Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, since all know that he has no national stature and is unlikely to threaten their own ambitions further down the line.
Least Objectionable Leader For the Khakis
Enough has been written about Shehbaz’s personal life. It would suffice to say that the 70-year-old is an extremely wealthy man in his own right and has built up a reputation as a shrewd administrator and as someone who called himself an “Islamic Socialist” during a visit of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to the country.
Accounts of his gruelling hard work in Punjab include a drive to improve governance and build infrastructure, keeping Punjab somewhat aloof from the downslide in the rest of Pakistan.
Shehbaz is seen as far less controversial than his brother. There is also the belief that the Army has a far greater comfort level with Shehbaz than his brother. In the past, then-Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Kayani, had reached out to Shehbaz in a secret meeting to persuade the party not to press for pursuing cases against then-President General Pervez Musharraf. In fact, the former chief used to meet him regularly on a quiet basis.
That was not in the least how Imran Khan functioned, preferring to tom-tom the superiority of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to the Army, which was seen particularly opposed to accepting a new Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief, and the insistence on social media that new candidates “were being interviewed”.
Overall, the Army would not be unhappy with the younger Sharif holding the reins. But Shehbaz has shown unflinching loyalty to his brother and even chose to reveal recently how General Qamar Javed Bajwa had praised Nawaz.
The Challenges are Many
Few Prime Ministers have faced worse. On a personal level, the cases against Shehbaz or his brother can easily be closed given the malleability of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). But that’s what Imran will use to build up his image in the coming months. In terms of the party, there is already resistance towards making Bilawal the Foreign Minister, from both his own party and the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party), thus revealing the pitfalls ahead in terms of keeping the coalition steady.
‘Rewards’ in Sindh will have to be given to key party Muttahida Quami Mahaz (Pakistan), the ex-ally that finally toppled the Imran government by withdrawing support. That will be opposed by PPP workers.
And these are just teething issues. On a national level, the biggest hurdles are going to be the teetering economy and inflation at 12.72 per cent as against 10.72 last year in the same period. Meanwhile, the new government has publicly stated its priorities, both domestic and external. On the external front, the references to not just Kashmir but also to restricting the list of friendly countries to China, Iran, the UAE, the UK and Saudi Arabia, with the clear snubbing of the US, show to what extent Khan has poisoned foreign policy internally.
What was earlier a clear division between internal and external policy has disappeared due to the antics of Khan in deliberately stoking radicalism, as was seen in his virtually laying the groundwork for the 2021 violent protests against French cartoons and summoning the French envoy.
The Sharifs, who were earlier far from following a liberal agenda, will, however, find themselves pushed further to the right to prevent the Islamists from backing Khan.
For India, a Cloudy Sunrise
Shehbaz is India’s best bet for peace. While he is far from being a peacenik on Kashmir – for instance, he has often said that Kashmir should be part of Pakistan – he has proved himself to be sufficiently pragmatic to understand that his country, particularly his province, needs to open trade routes with India to prosper.
Shehbaz has come the furthest of any Pakistani leader in terms of signing a joint statement with India’s Parkash Singh Badal in 2013 to open up new trade routes. A year later, he warned that security agencies on both sides were blocking progress. This was also the view of his brother, who often held that whenever India and Pakistan went for dialogue, terrorism or cross-border firing seemed to go up.
This time around, the caution with which Shehbaz is approaching the India question is apparent in his Twitter reply to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s felicitations, where he calls for peace but also centralises Kashmir and other disputes as ‘indispensable’.
Optimists will, however, point to the speech by COAS Bajwa at the Islamabad Security Dialogue this year, where he called – as he did last year – for a ‘peaceful’ South Asia, and, more importantly, preventing terrorists from crossing borders. Add to this the sentencing of Hafiz Saeed for 32 years, and there may be some cause for being hopeful. Even more solidly, the Line of Control (LoC) has remained peaceful for nearly a year now.
In sum, the Pakistani leader’s thrust will primarily be towards stabilising his country, particularly the economy. To do that, he needs to turn Pakistan into a truly ‘strategic space’ and make it a junction of regional trade rather than an abyss of terrorism and extremism, which have marked its policies for years.
Shehbaz and his allies will probably support such a shift. But trouble looms in the form of the ousted Prime Minister, who will try to portray every such move as a betrayal of the ‘people’. And not just that, he’ll make it sound good. Khan as a protester will always be more appealing than Shehbaz’s solid performance on the ground. That’s what regional politics is all about. It’s also why South Asia remains impoverished.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)