A YEAR AGO, SHEHBAZ Sharif could have scarcely imagined that he would become the prime minister of Pakistan. The former chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province had spent more than six months in jail for money laundering. But such is the nature of politics in Pakistan that you never know when fate smiles on you. After a trying week when Imran Khan left no stone unturned to hold on to power, the three-time chief minister finally reached the top of the greasy pole of political power in Pakistan.
Sharif, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was always known for his administrative acumen. As a long-serving chief minister of Punjab, he always knew how to get things done in a difficult country. But as a younger sibling, he always ended up playing second fiddle to his brother. In all these decades, it could only be fate or a biological accident that could pave the way for his ascent to the top job.
In the end, it was a series of political accidents that worked in his favour. In 2016, in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, the elder Sharif’s star eclipsed and he was jailed. The ‘establishment’—as the army is known in Pakistan—did not favour the younger Sharif and picked Khan. In those years, Shehbaz had to plough a lonely furrow. But with Khan making one political miscalculation after another, the time of the Punjab finally arrived in April.
Apart from being the tallest political leader in Pakistan at the moment, Shehbaz has another quality. He is ‘pragmatic’ about the army and is unlikely to rock the boat at a moment when Khan has unleashed a storm of sorts against the establishment. A politically inopportune time for the army is a politically convenient one for Shehbaz. In this, the two Sharifs are like cheese and chalk: the elder one is known for his bruising encounters with the men in khaki; the younger one just wants to mind his business.
This is not the easiest of times to helm Pakistan. The country is in a deep economic crisis and Khan’s administrative incompetence has dug an economic hole. After repeated failures to adhere to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) reform schedule, Pakistan is almost at a dead end. The first task for Shehbaz is to win back the trust of global financial institutions and restore economic order. The task is not easy. Out of power, Imran Khan has already begun to hammer on the claim that foreign conspirators are out to sabotage Pakistan. In this situation, it will be tricky for the prime minister to negotiate with the IMF. In any developing country, institutions like the IMF are viewed as ‘eroding’ their sovereignty; In Pakistan’s toxic political climate, IMF and anyone agreeing to its conditions are open targets.
Until now, Shehbaz has never had to face the army or its interference in government work. It is unlikely there will be deliberate friction from his side. But there is one fraught area where economic governance and security and foreign policies are likely to end up like a witches’ brew. Pakistan’s heavy dependence on China for financial assistance is in no small part due to its entanglement with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). At the moment, it is on FATF’s “grey list,” making financial flows and foreign investment difficult. This is a direct result of Pakistan’s encouragement and abetment of terrorism from its soil, an area of the ‘establishment.’ Sorting out this mess will pose a severe test for Shehbaz: the army is unlikely to let go of its proxies that have wreaked havoc in India (in J&K). But unless that is done, Pakistan is unlikely to be let off the FATF grey list.
In his first address in the National Assembly, the new Prime Minister sent an unambiguous message that unless Kashmir was “sorted”, there would be no peace with India. He reiterated that when he responded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory tweet. These may have been for domestic political consumption, and frankly, they were necessary to tamp down Imran Khan’s inflammatory rhetoric. But the signalling is clear: A pragmatic Sharif at the helm or not, India and Pakistan are unlikely to find common ground any time soon.