Sharif: Pakistan’s Next Prime Minister?
The other day while watching noted television journalist Karan Thapar’ s “Devil’s Advocate” programme, I was impressed by Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s “sincere” assurance that if elected to the office of the Prime Minister, he would never allow the Pakistani soil to be used by the terror groups against India. Sharif, who has been Prime Minister twice, was eloquent how he had signed the Lahore Declaration with former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and started a reconciliation process with India, that, unfortunately, got derailed by his then Army Chief Pervez Musharraf’s war in Kargil. Musharraf, incidentally, staged a coup against Sharif later.
However, this column is not devoted this week to the future contours of Indo-Pak relations but to the general elections in Pakistan on May 11. In fact, by the time this issue of the magazine reaches out to most of our readers, 183 million Pakistanis would have elected a new federal government. That will be a historic feat in the sense that for the first time in Pakistan’s history an elected government will succeed an elected predecessor that completed a full term.
This time, 86.1 million Pakistanis—more than a third of them between the age of 18 and 30—are registered to vote at polling stations across the country. The Election Commission has allowed some 148 political parties to run, allotting symbols to each party to help voters who cannot read. Apart from the traditional mainstream parties such as Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML), some famous personalities and their respective political parties, not necessarily form the conventional political background, are also in the race.
For instance, there is the controversial nuclear technologist, arguably father of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs and missiles, A Q Khan, whose party has been given a missile as the election-symbol. Legendary cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will fight on the symbol of a cricket bat. Then there is former Army Chief-turned President Pervez Musharraf, who, with his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) party, also wanted to be in the fray “to save Pakistan”, but his goal has been thwarted by the Pakistani Courts. He has been disqualified for contesting the polls and his party has decided to boycott the elections. There are also the religious political parties of Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, though they will like to be seen together with Tehreek-e-Insaf.
With about 10,000 candidates nationwide, the polls will present Pakistanis with a range of options to choose from. The left of the centre—which wants social freedom and liberties, peace with India, a laissez-faire approach to Afghanistan, continued strong relations with the US, and curbs on the Army’s powers—is led by the PPP and its allies. The right of the centre — which is usually anti-India, anti-America, and preaching the importance of religion in political life—is represented by Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf; Saudi-backed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, as well as smaller religious parties. The fringe is occupied by Musharraf, A Q Khan, and the political divisions of militant groups that have also been allowed to run.
Against this background, some fundamental aspects of Pakistani polity need to be pointed out. To begin with, the PPP coalition government is the first democratically elected government in Pakistani history to complete a full term. The PPP and President Asif Zardari deserve credit for this. All the more so because the PPP made qualitative improvements in the country’s constitution, with the President returning powers to the Prime Minister that were unduly taken away during Pervez Musharraf’s military rule. It was also creditable on the part of the PPP for devolving powers to the provinces.
However, if we take the overall governance under the PPP’s five-year rule, it turns out to be a sad story. Under the PPP regime, inflation rose to as high as 25 per cent. The economic situation was further compounded by the poor growth and rising disparity between the urban and the rural households. Of course, the PPP government launched the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), distributing more than $1 billion in cash transfers to 3.5 million families in poverty. But the high inflation neutralized many of its advantages. The government could not solve the acute energy crisis facing the country, with majority areas undergoing power cuts for more than 15 hours a day.
Pakistan’s economy is critically dependent on the foreign aid, and that too mostly American aid. Pakistan ranks third among recipients of US foreign aid, with more than $2 billion, and two-third of that goes to the military. As Gustav Ranis of Yale University rightly points out, for decades, Pakistan has refused to tax its feudal landlords, leading to a 12 percent tax/GDP ratio and a high dependency on foreign donors, with 99 per cent of the population reporting attendant corruption. Only 860,000 of the 183 million population pay tax. Pakistan’s education lags behind Bangladesh’s. Only 0.7 per cent of the Pakistani GDP is spent on health. The literacy rate is at 53 percent and poverty at 24 per cent, with a Gini ratio of 0.41, a measure of income disparity, with zero indicating no disparity. Budget deficits are at 7.5 per cent of GDP, above the government’s target of 4.7 per cent. Infrastructure is lagging terribly.
The PPP rule also proved highly ineffective in keeping up its electoral promise of promoting Pakistan’s internal cohesion. On the contrary, the level of persecution of minorities went up to an unprecedented level, a theme which happens to be our cover story this week. In the past year, Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented number of Shia killings all over the country: in Baluchistan, Karachi, Lahore, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The debate over amending the blasphemy law unravelled, leading to numerous instances of violence against Christians who allegedly engaged in blasphemous behavior. The PPP’s other security problem was the domestic insurgency in northwestern Pakistan, with multiple attempts to negotiate with or pressure the Pakistani Taliban falling flat.
While it is a fact that the PPP is the most secular of all the Pakistani political parties, it is virtually powerless to be of any effect because the real power of the country continues with the Army as far as internal and external securities are concerned. The Army’s is the final word on country’s foreign policy vis a vis India, Afghanistan, China and the United States. It continues to control the country’s nuclear weapons. The ISI, an offshoot of the Army, also plays the most important role in country’s internal security. And in all this, the Army is in connivance with the religious extremists.
In fact, the Pakistan Army finds it strategically imperative to promote sectarian clashes, despite the fact that one comes across periodic incidents of the militants attacking the security personnel. The Army knows that it is playing with fire by hobnobbing with the militants, but then it is not prepared to part ways with them as they are great strategic tools against India, Afghanistan and the United States. In fact, the Army needs more and more of them as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 2014.
Given the present global opinion and excessive dependence of Pakistan on foreign aid, the Army is not going to take over the governmental power directly. But whoever forms the government through elections will have to learn to coexist with the Army, which, incidentally, wields also tremendous economic power in Pakistan. As Ayesha Siddiqa in her wonderful book, Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy says, ‘Milbus’ (military capital used for the personal benefit of military fraternity) operates in three areas: Agriculture, Manufacturing and Services and at three levels: one; through direct involvement of the military, obtaining unfair economic advantage for its subsidiaries and obtaining direct favours for individual members of the military fraternity. Despite constraints to evaluation posed by the lack of transparency, which the author laments, she puts through her main argument that the commercial ventures of the military’s subsidiaries use the influence of the military to obtain business contracts and inputs, financial as well industrial, at subsidised rates. This puts these ventures ahead of their competitors in the private sector.
The point that one is making is that under such constraints, no elected government is likely to deliver goods. Pakistan will remain essentially “an Army with a country”, not “a country with an Army”. And as Gustav Ranis says, in the absence of fundamental change, political as well as economic, unlikely under present circumstances, there is little hope Pakistan can emerge from the category as “failing state”.
But people in general do not realise this. For them, there is a government that is supposed to deliver. And here, it is no wonder that the PPP suffers from a tremendous anti-incumbency sentiments of the electorate. That is why it is highly likely that the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will lead the race when the election results are out. Of course, some opinion polls indicate that there will be a hung Parliament and thus witness coalition building. That, in turn, would mean that candidates spearheading smaller parties—candidates such as Imran Khan—will become kingmakers and handed disproportionate power to decide Pakistan’s future.
By Prakash Nanda