Nawaz Sharif’s shift to the centre

Published: November 22, 2015


PHOTO: AFP The writer is consulting editor at The Friday Times and a faculty member at Ithaca College, USA

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s chequered political career may have entered a new phase. His third term is beset by the same old challenges usually presented by Pakistan’s political landscape. A resurgent military ostensibly calling the shots, enduring turbulence in the neighbourhood and decreased negotiating space for policymaking to improve the economy. Unlike his past two terms, Nawaz Sharif has not taken on the military power. Instead, adopting a sobered version of his past self, he has chosen to ‘work’ with the permanent establishment to ensure that a systemic breakdown is avoided. That moment came last year during the street protests, but he survived, in part due to the military’s resolve not to intervene directly.

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Despite these protests and lack of tangible results on many fronts, the political base of the PML-N seems to be intact. The recent two phases of local government election and barring the Lahore by-election where the opposition PTI almost won, the PML-N seems to be firmly saddled in Punjab. This is one of the flashpoints as the military’s support base is also located largely in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif’s brand of politics — of asserting civilian power, trading with India, etc. — therefore comes into conflict with the ideological framework of a security state.

Earlier this month, the prime minister said that the nation’s future lies in a “democratic and liberal” Pakistan. He also emphasised the importance of a thriving private sector. Perhaps, the use of ‘liberal’ was a reference to economic liberalism. However, for the country’s chief executive to make such a statement is noteworthy. Nawaz Sharif also spoke about making Pakistan an “educated, progressive, forward looking and an enterprising nation”. He was immediately berated by religious leaders for negating the ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

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A week later, the prime minister also attended a Diwali function where he interacted with the Hindu community and expressed his desire to participate in Holi festivities. His unusual (by Pakistani standards) remarks included: “Pakistan is a country for all and I am the prime minister of all Pakistanis, no matter what religion, creed or caste they belong to.” While such a gesture may come across as tokenism, it makes a point of departure in a country where minorities have been at the receiving end of the acts of militant groups and hate mobs.

The term ‘liberal’ has become an abuse word. Opinion-makers have crafted egregiously incorrect terms, such as ‘liberal fascists’ and ‘liberal extremists’ to bolster the jihad project of the 1980s onwards. Imran Khan, one of Pakistan’s most popular leaders, went even further declaring liberals “scum” and the leaders of his current partner — the Jamaat-e-Islami — have been advising liberals to get registered as a minority and leave the country.

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This narrative continues to inform the public mind. Liberals — often ‘guilty’ of highlighting human rights abuses — are viewed as ‘paid’, working on a ‘Western agenda’ or bringing a bad name to Pakistan. In recent months, two intriguing commentaries peddled the same old line. A recent article authored by a senior journalist equated “pseudo liberals” as “bitterly opposed to the Pakistan Armed Forces”, as they want to “make frontiers between Pakistan and India irrelevant”. The commentary equated liberals to the minority of religious extremists, completely overlooking the threat and use of violence by the latter. Earlier, another commentator in a leading English daily called extremist outfits “pragmatic” forces, who consider “liberals” as a “non-religious body and against the ideological identity of the state”.

Another senior journalist in his column for a leading Urdu paper accused the prime minister of betraying his mandate to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state. He praised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for having turned the Constitution ‘Islamic’ while being secular in his personal life. Nawaz Sharif, despite his strong religious credentials, was taking Pakistan in the wrong direction, complained the columnist.

The prime minister needs to do a bit more than just issue feel-good statements. While the ideological orientation and the support base in middle class, conservative sections of Punjab’s electorate (some of whom support and fund extremist networks) may not allow for radical shifts his party’s views, Nawaz Sharif’s leadership and positions potentially could change some of the prevalent attitudes, especially towards religious minorities. The PML-N would need to reconsider its localised electoral alliances with sectarian militias. Perhaps, the ongoing military operations have opened up some space for the party to re-evaluate its moorings. That should be the next logical step for the Sharif brothers to give much-needed support to the persecuted Shia Muslims in the country and also take stock of ongoing persecution of Ahmadis.

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Of late, media reports have also focused on the increasing role of the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz. During his recent trip to Washington, Maryam Nawaz made public appearances and highlighted how her party had struggled for democracy. Dynastic politics is old-fashioned and has to go away. But it is not disappearing anytime soon. Women from the Sharif family have traditionally not been in the public eye. Maryam Nawaz’s increasing public role within a male-dominated party is another sign of the times and more so of a changing PML-N as it shifts towards the centre on the political spectrum.

It may be too early to predict the future course of Nawaz Sharif and his party. It is also true that all mainstream parties with minor variations have nothing radically different to offer to the electorate. In fact, their performance across the board does not inspire confidence of large segments of the population, especially the youth, who clamour for opportunities, jobs, openness and more responsive institutions. One of the reasons for the recent resurgence of the military is the flawed style[s] of governing Pakistan at both the federal and provincial levels. There is much that the PML-N and other mainstream parties have to undertake to win both public legitimacy and powers from the security establishment.

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The PML-N’s shift, howsoever minor or rhetorical it might be, is a welcome development. From being the protege of the military during the 1980s and the leader of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad in the 1990s, Nawaz Sharif today has found his orbit. He may not have the requisite space to normalise relations with India and drive the security policy nor the best of teams in his kitchen cabinet, but he seems far more self-assured than he has ever been.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd,  2015.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Ali S
    Nov 23, 2015 - 12:15AM

    I’d like to be as optimistic as the author but the truth is probably that he’s trying to capitalize on the PTI’s gigantic mistake of partnering with JI by isolating its urban moderate vote bank in Punjab (if they had to choose between the two, the vast majority of PTI supporters would rather be in the PMLN camp than the religious parties’ camp) – it’s actually a pretty smart political move by Nawaz.

    Let’s not forget that only a year ago (until the Karachi airport attack happened) the same Nawaz wanted to hold peace talks with TTP, freshly after they had executed dozens of paramilitary soldiers. No one suddenly becomes a self-proclaimed liberal in one year.Recommend

  • sabi
    Nov 23, 2015 - 12:42AM

    Putting military team in fore front for operation clean up (deliberately) may have some political cost for NS but results for that strategy are enormous.In my opinion ISPR statement is given on the advise of prime minister house to avoid political resistance from rightists from all fields that its the army that would decide who is good and who is not good for Pakistan.If this is the case I would call it a great move.Recommend

  • sabi
    Nov 23, 2015 - 12:48AM

    Further more; those clowns (defender of ideology this and that) who are unable to read in between the lines will get the message once second phase pick up the pace.
    Pakistan has changed.Recommend

  • asif
    Nov 23, 2015 - 6:23AM

    Supporter of LeJ and TTP talks cannot be in the center. If he is doing anything its because of pressure from Imran Khan. And the author conveniently skipped the massive corruption that impoverishes millions which is also a form of terrorism.Recommend

  • Tanveer Khan
    Nov 23, 2015 - 10:33AM

    Nawaz Sharif really needs to stop supporting Raiwind on the back hand, if he really wants to promote pluralism. Recommend

  • Amanzim
    Nov 23, 2015 - 11:55AM

    Just because he used the word liberal in one speech, does mot make him a liberal; he is basically a conservative whose team is male dominated and family mafia. If he has moved towards secular ideologies, I will support him in future. I would like to hear the word liberal more often to convince me. Recommend

  • Muneer
    Nov 23, 2015 - 12:06PM

    A very optimistic essay.The PM is only trying to remain in power,and allowing every one else to do whatever they want. This does not mean shifting to centre,but could be self assurance not because of doing the right thing but because of free for all thing.Recommend

  • Disgusting
    Nov 23, 2015 - 4:10PM

    The biggest weakness of Mr Nawaz Sharif is that he is loyal only to himself and his family. Country does not figure anywhere because of conflict of interest; business vs businesses. Then he is empty at the top. Lacks concentration and understanding of state affairs. Pakistan has suffered because of a below average leadership and he is not average.Recommend

  • Komal S
    Nov 23, 2015 - 5:35PM

    Everybody knows Sharifs recent recent moves to look like a liberal is a very well calibrated to contrast himself with Modi. He knows Modi does not do Iftar parties and is perceived as Rightwing. Recommend

  • Nadeem
    Nov 23, 2015 - 8:21PM

    A civilian PM may move right, left or centre, nothing changes because of him. The establishment has been revolving around its self-nurtured sense of insecurity for decades. That, has not changed. COAS loves to bring up Kashmir and loves to taunt India for no reason every now and then. As long as establishment/ideology driven approach does not give way to a civilian/pragmatic approach, nothing will change. Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Nov 25, 2015 - 8:42PM

    The author is moving in his thinking between the right left and centre, whereas Nawaz Sharif is where he finds his family business interests lie, the placebo side effect on the Nation wellfare is just a coincidence and not well designed.

    Rex MinorRecommend

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