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Will Sharif’s new mantra get him what he wants?

Published : May 15, 2017, 12:11 am IST
Updated : May 15, 2017, 12:11 am IST

Civilian incompetence or lack of alacrity though doesn’t by itself endanger democracy.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)
 Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: AP)

There’s consensus: they pulled back from the brink. Sanity prevailed, democracy has been strengthened. We should all be grateful. So let’s try another version.

Nawaz Sharif missed an opportunity, the Prime Minister has been weakened, democracy may be in trouble and we should all be a little worried about the chief.

The tweet was a rookie’s error, fired off in haste; a chief seemingly out of his depth. Even as it ricocheted around the world, the question was obvious: after rejection, what? Trite, but true — a crisis is also an opportunity. Out of nowhere, the boys had put themselves in a situation where they’d come under pressure to reaffirm their support for democracy.

Outside the howling sections of the media and the opportunist political lot, there’s a serious world. That world — Pakistan’s partners abroad, influential sectors at home — doesn’t want a coup. And you can bet all of them  swung into action and counselled restraint. That was Mr Sharif’s opportunity. He doesn’t need the boys’ affirmation of democracy; he already knows they can’t — won’t — take over just now. What Mr Sharif needs is policy space, a seat at the table and the boys willing to listen to him. The bargain was obvious: work to placate a chief who had come under instant pressure from multiple constituencies and use that goodwill for policy input later.

Instead, Mr Sharif chose quiet defiance. Through friends and allies, he let it be known that what was done was done, he had no interest in reopening the notification matter and that if the boys really wanted, they could chuck him out. It was a wasted moment.

The whole mess started because Mr Sharif wanted a voice in the policy debate again, to give his trade and regional connectivity agenda a shot over the old ways of militarised national security.

Fast forward seven months and the regional dynamic is worse. The north-south corridor — CPEC — may be in full swing, but the one that the civilians crave, connectivity along the east-west axis, isn’t going anywhere.

Kabul is disillusioned and seems to have lost interest, while Delhi is in an aggressive mood that makes any kind of dialogue difficult. That’s the second failure of Mr Sharif. He doesn’t seem to have realised that troubled times regionally are as much an opportunity for gaining space internally than promising times.

Gen. Bajwa, I see what Kabul and Delhi are up to and here’s how I think we, the two of us together, can get them to behave better.

If that annoys Kabul and Delhi, all the better — you burnish your credentials at home with the boys, possibly making them a little less suspicious of you and your motives. Instead, Mr Sharif seems stuck in the same gear — he has a vision and he’ll somehow get to that vision by never reacting to the bad stuff, internally or externally.

So the boys wallop him over the head at home and the new Sharif doesn’t react; do what you will seems to be his new mantra.

It’s better than old Sharif, who would have plotted revenge and maybe the chief’s ouster, but it still doesn’t get him any closer to what he really wants. The policy agenda, a seat at the table — it will never be as simple as being gracious to the other side trapped in a situation of its own making. But it was a sudden, unexpected opening. That opening may be gone.

Civilian incompetence or lack of alacrity though doesn’t by itself endanger democracy. The danger comes from the other side.

Gracious words, nearly unprecedented words, a ringing endorsement of democratic form at least — Gen. Bajwa has won praise for defusing a crisis. Problem is, he’s getting praise for doing the right thing only because he first did the wrong thing.

For folk with an eye on instability, Gen. Bajwa has already revealed two troubling flaws: he may not know what he’s doing — devastating in and of itself — and he may not know how to resist pressure.

The tweet was an instant error, almost Musharrafian in its execution and proportions.

The N-League may have been sly or incompetent in trying to wriggle away with doing less than it had agreed to with a watered-down notification. But the gap between the notification as issued and as agreed with the boys was small enough to file it away for future reference — a reminder that Mr Sharif will play games.

What it wasn’t worth was a crisis. Specially one in which the next move was not apparent and that exposed the chief to a torrent of criticism from all sides.

Once closure had been agreed to — clear since the day a consensus was reached in the inquiry — the next move should have been obvious: Brace yourself for a bit of backlash; try and muzzle the pro-Raheel lot that had been on the rampage for months; and hunker down for games that Mr Sharif may play. Since none of that was done, the tweet error happened. And the chief left himself with no good options. If it was just rashness, be afraid. If it was the result of a chief unable to resist pressure, be very afraid.

Once upon a time, to go back to the Musharrafian analogy, the months between June 4 and Oct 12 too had seemed like democracy had won. Maybe it’s better if we stick to the consensus view. Democracy has been saved.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: nawaz sharif, cpec, general qamar bajwa