Originally Published 2011-05-20 00:00:00 Published on May 20, 2011
In Pakistan, there is a sense of disillusionment with the government, and forme Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, an astute politician, obviously sees an opportunity in it for his party PML(N) in the 2013 election. But it is not likely to be an easy road.
US dilemma over Nawaz Sharif's astute moves
Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) chief and former Prime Minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif, has made some some bold moves recently. Overthrown in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf, his criticism of the Pakistani army has acquired a sharper edge. The secret US mission Operation Geronimo that killed Osama bin Laden earlier this month has given him more ammunition.

His party PML(N) has been pushing for an independent inquiry, rather than a military probe, into Operation Geronimo. Sharif’s belligerence against the army has not gone unnoticed. During a joint parliament session held on May 13, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Shuja Pasha lashed out at the PML(N) for its strident anti-ISI and anti-army posturing in public. Pasha claimed that it resulted in severe damage to the reputation of the country’s premier intelligence agency and the army.

There is a sense of disillusionment with the government in Pakistan, and Sharif, an astute politician that he is, obviously sees an opportunity in it for PML(N) in the 2013 election. But it is not likely to be an easy road for the PML(N), as it may have to face numerous obstacles to capturing power. First, the acrimony between the PML(N) chief and the Pakistani army has grown at a time when the latter continues to call the shots and is, in fact, even more important than ever. Second, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has accepted the supremacy of the army and the ISI, as is evident from the Pakistan Prime Minister’s defence of the two institutions and some other statements emanating from the government. By doing so the PPP has endeared itself to the two institutions.

Besides buying peace with the army, the PPP has also shown willingness to ally with erstwhile political foes, like Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League (Q). The PPP wants to undercut the support of the PML(N) in the powerful Punjab province of Pakistan by aligning with the PML(Q).

Interestingly, the reports from Pakistan indicate that so far Sharif has refrained from making any statement or indulging in any action which might destabilise the weak and incompetent PPP government. Eight years in exile have probably made him realise that infighting among political parties strengthens the army-ISI combine. The calculated attack on the army and the ISI indicate that he does not want to resort to the politics of desperation and wants to convey that he is the only leader who is genuinely committed to democracy and supremacy of civil institutions in Pakistan.

The other development which, for the moment, seems nothing more than a gamble is Sharif’s remark that Islamabad should stop viewing India as an existential threat. His statement is commendable but may not pay political dividend. While taking on the army on issues like Operation Geronimo strikes a chord with the domestic political constituency, softening towards India at a time when the army, the ISI and the political parties are upping the ante may turn out to be a big risk. It remains to be seen how the army and political actors opposed to the PML(N) supremo use his statement to their advantage. Sharif also has his popularity at stake, which has a large component of hardliners, as the PML(N) is seen to occupy the right of the centre space in Pakistan.

All this has put the US in a dilemma. If it reaches out to Sharif, it annoys the Pakistan army, which it needs for its operations in Afghanistan. At the same time, if it keeps running roughshod over Pakistan via its marriage of convenience with the Pakistani army and the ISI, the hatred for Uncle Sam would only increase in Pakistan.

Sharif’s remark came a few days after his meeting with the US ambassador. So, are we seeing a gradual shift of alignments? While the US will continue to engage the army, is it also mindful of the fact that there is a popular groundswell against the army and that prominent political actors cannot be brushed aside.

Whether Sharif’s political gambles reap the desired dividends, only time will tell, but by going hammer and tongs against the army, and going against the unnecessary siege mentality and being calculated in his dealings with the Americans he has exhibited extreme boldness. Sharif’s recent moves are a positive omen for the whole region, and not just for Pakistan.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: Financial World
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