Event ReportsPublished on Apr 16, 2016
Sharif's leadership deteriorating: Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s leadership seems to be deteriorating ever since 2013, according to Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, reputed Pakistani author and military expert.

Delivering a talk on ‘The Future of India-Pakistan Relations’ at Observer Research Foundation, Dr. Siddiqa said one of his very recent criticism has been of his decision to allow former President Pervez Musharraf to leave the country. She said this exit has led to skepticism regarding his leadership role.

Dr. Siddiqa said the civil-military agenda has lately been to build a positive image of Pakistan’s domestic situation for the international community. Suddenly, all governments are marketing modernity. For example, the recent announcement by the Government of Sindh granting a national holiday on the occasion of Holi, which was followed earlier in the 1950’s, but had been done away with. She said this declaration could possibly be emanating out of concerns related to the liberal space being taken away within the state, with the attacks on the minority sections, issues of blasphemy etc.  Dr. Siddiqa said it could be an effort to legally and politically protect the minorities, though the state is still far away from doing anything concrete on this front.

Dr. Siddiqa said in the decision making of the country, civil-military relations go hand in hand. However, it is evident that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cannot take decisions on his own. The balance between the civil-military relations is skewed in favour of the military, and they have a final say in the strategic decision making of the country, she said, adding it is clear that the army remains powerful while as the political government is on a weaker wicket.

She said the ‘War on terror’ has particularly changed the perception of the citizens toward the military. It is the army that is perceived in a positive light while as the government and politicians are seen as weak and inefficient, she said.

On the issue of Taliban, the military stand has been to target all anti-terrorist groups, Dr. Siddiqa said. However, military has also been keen on selling the project of certain factions within Taliban being army-friendly. Their agenda seems to be to encourage Taliban that is friendlier to Pakistan and target other anti-state groups, she said.

 Dr. Siddiqa referred to the growing vested interests of the United States in the domestic situation of Pakistan, which is often viewed with skepticism by the system and people. There seems to be a feeling of a foreign/external pressure of being held hostage to cultural ethos, she said, adding  extremism prevalent in the state is a modern version and is a middle class project. She said the religion is carrying the burden of the state as it has become an inherent part of the society. Different groups have used their influence and expanded the notion of religion for their purpose. For example, terrorist groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Laskar-e-Taiba are involved in running modern madrasa schools in English medium. However, a key turning point for Pakistan has been the killing of school children in the Peshawar attack in December 2014. This incident pushed the military to rethink and challenge those elements that have had a negative impact on the nation.

From 2014 onwards, the country internally witnessed a shift and began its Zarb-e-Azb operation targeting the unfriendly anti-state groups. However, there is a general feeling of lack of dialogue and lack of a wholesome change within Pakistan. In order to ensure stability, Pakistan is making efforts in projecting itself as a nation that does not seek to promote terrorism and terrorist activities on its soil. While the nation is taking steps on that front, there is a huge amount of narrative management. For example, the media is used as a tool to highlight the positive aspects of the country.

Dr. Siddiqa said the appointment of the next army chief in November this year will be of major political consequence in Pakistan. It is most likely to lead to a power tussle between the government and military factions. This is also likely to impact India-Pakistan relations, as the Army has big influence in Pakistan’s foreign policy.

According to Dr. Siddiqa, there are certain other changes too within Pakistan that could impact the bilateral relations. There is also a fear of the right wing nature of the government in India. Several studies point out to a number of constituencies that are keen on dealing with India. For example, Punjabi and Sindhi businessmen are keen on opening up further engagement between the neighbours. It is also important to note here that the Pakistani government is far more open to changes in terms of engagement, but the same cannot be said about the military, she said. And the current narrative does not point towards any change in the mindset of the military, according to her.

Dr. Siddiqa suggested that the civil society and the government in Pakistan need to explore options in order to reach out to India. However, this is a slow and long term process which cannot be achieved anytime soon. Both nations have to make a slow and steady progress towards strengthening its ties, as there is no immediate short term solution to this, she said.

This report is prepared by Sabah Ishtiaq, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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