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Opinion: What can India, Pakistan and US expect from Shahbaz Sharif?

Shahbaz Sharif Photograph:( Others )

Sonepat, Haryana, India Dec 26, 2017, 01.41 PM (IST) Written By: Tridivesh Singh Maini

Former Pakistani prime minister and the president of the Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N), Nawaz Sharif chose his brother who is the current Chief Minister of the Punjab province (Pakistan), Shahbaz Sharif as the (PML)-N’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 elections. The decision was made during the course of a meeting with senior leaders of the PML-N at Nawaz’s Jatti Umra residence on December 20, 2017.


There will be those who argue that this was very much expected, given the nature of dynastic politics, in general, and the family-centered politics of the PML-N in particular. There is some truth in this, yet it would be important to bear a few facts in mind.


First, Nawaz Sharif’s choice sends a clear message, that the reported strain between both brothers was caused, largely, by the ambitions of their respective children, Maryam Nawaz (daughter of Nawaz Sharif) and Hamza Shahbaz (son of Shahbaz Sharif). But much of the sources, Sharif claims, have been addressed at least for the time being. It would be pertinent to mention, that after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif was expected to be the natural choice as his successor – both as prime minister and president. 


After his disqualification to hold Public Office by the Pakistan Supreme Court, Nawaz did name Shahbaz Sharif as his successor. Straining relations between both sides, however, resulted in Nawaz choosing current incumbent Abbasi as the interim prime minister. While the reason cited for not appointing Shahbaz as the prime minister in July 2017 was that the party wanted him to remain in Punjab and take care of the implementation of some key projects. A number of analysts believed, that if Shahbaz took over as the prime minister, Hamza Shahbaz would have become the Chief Minister of Punjab.  Another point cited to reiterate the strains between Nawaz and Shahbaz families was the point that Hamza was not made in charge of the bye-election of Kulsoom Nawaz which was vacated as a result of Nawaz Sharif’s resignation from Parliament


During the meeting on December 20, Nawaz Sharif did allude to Shahbaz Sharif’s differences with the party over certain issues. While of course, praising him for his commitment to the party. 


He said: ‘Shahbaz has always worked to further the party policies for public welfare and this unflagging attitude earned him the opportunity to be trusted for a higher office. We are a democratic political party where everyone is free to voice their mind. Shahbaz has had difference of opinion over some issues yet his commitment to the party overrules all else, which is why he has never violated the party discipline,”


By choosing Shahbaz, Nawaz has arrested any further deterioration in ties between both brothers, but also any sort of rebellion, since a number of senior leaders in the PNL-N,  have been uncomfortable with the rise of Nawaz’ daughter, Maryam Nawaz. Apart from the fact, that she is inexperienced, Maryam is also one of the accused in the Panama Papers case.


If one were to look beyond the politics of the Sharif family, and the dynamics of the PML-N, Shahbaz’ is important at a time when ties between the civilian government and military are at a low point. Shahbaz is more acceptable to the army, and has a better relationship than Nawaz.


In the past, Nawaz Sharif would have gone the whole hog against the army, but a mellowed and mature Nawaz Sharif realises that any sort of clash will not help the country either politically or economically, and the military too would seek to cash in on the corruption cases against Nawaz. 


The establishment (Army and ISI) has played a role, not just in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, but it has also propped up the Milli Muslim League (a front of Lashkar-e-Taiba, LeT), yet publically it has been making the right noises. One of the important steps taken by the Army Chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, was his briefing to a parliamentary committee on December 19, 2017. The briefing included a discussion of important national security issues, ties with India, the outcome of Army Chief’s foreign visits and the Saudi-led military alliance of Muslim countries. The army chief also stated that the Army would back the government’s initiatives to improve ties with India. 


The Pakistani army has always been good at PR exercises, and it realiSes that while there is disillusion with democratic forces, any sort of official take over, may not be taken to well by the Pakistani citizens. The recent moves by the army chief also seem to be in a similar direction.


Third, Shahbaz is known for his stellar governance record in Punjab, and is a trusted face with the voters in a PML-N vs. PPP. Nawaz Sharif made mention of this during the meeting with senior PPP leaders. Shahbaz Sharif has been able to not just bring in some big infrastructural projects but has also been successful in implementing welfare schemes as well as citizen-friendly initiatives.


Fourth, Shahbaz has close ties with a number of key countries. This includes China, GCC countries and Turkey. China has repeatedly praised Shahbaz Sharif for his administrative skills. With some dexterity, he may also be able to do some damage control in the context of ties with the US, which have witnessed a downward spiral.  In the past, Shahbaz, as chief minister of Punjab, has tried to play a positive role in Indo-Pak peace efforts.


 In conclusion, PML-N Nawaz Sharif needs to be commended for making the correct decision. At this point, Shahbaz Sharif is the best bet for the PML-N as well as of Pakistan. Yet, PML-N would do well to become more consultative, and also address some of the genuine misgivings of the party. Shahbaz Sharif too will have to be more democratic in his functioning. While even his rivals confess that Sharif is a sound administrator, his style of functioning has been dubbed as abrasive at times.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).