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Sharif in Wonderland

August 27, 2013

IT may have not been difficult for Nawaz Sharif to reclaim the top position. But he certainly does not appear comfortable there. His morose demeanour portrays a man in deep agony, inspiring little confidence in the nation he is supposed to lead.

It was a rare moment in recent months when he was seen smiling in public, curiously enough, during the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry last month.

Mr Sharif’s first 80 days in his third term in office have not been promising enough to build public confidence in his government. His much-delayed first address to the nation lacked focus and direction. His tentative approach and indecision on almost all key policy issues has reinforced the state of inertia afflicting the republic.

Now almost at the end of the honeymoon period, the government does not have much to show for its performance. The prime minister’s dithering is proverbial. Several key diplomatic and government positions are lying vacant because he cannot make up his mind. Mr Sharif has never been known for the delegation of powers, but the situation seems to have worsened this time with him keeping several key portfolios such as foreign, defence and commerce for himself.

The rest are the same old faces, part of the previous PML-N administration some 13 years ago, thus bringing no new vision or ideas relevant to a radically changed domestic and external environment.

His unwillingness to induct new blood illustrates Mr Sharif’s old cliquish style of governance. The consultations on important matters are restricted to close family members and a few trusted hangers-on.

It is a government running in neutral gear. There has not been any substantive move yet to implement the party’s much-touted reform agenda.

Take for example, the economy, said to be on top of Mr Sharif’s priority list. There seems to be no clear policy direction. Despite his comfortable majority in the National Assembly, Mr Sharif is not willing to take the tough decisions urgently needed to put the economy back on track. It is ad hocism at its worst.

In last week’s address, the prime minister spoke at length about what had gone wrong, but nothing on what is to be done. Reforming the taxation system certainly does not seem to be Mr Sharif’s priority. That was quite apparent from what he said in an interview to London’s Telegraph last week: “I have not yet discussed this matter because … these are very initial days.” So how long will it take for Mr Sharif to think about this critical issue?

Mr Sharif has also hinted at cutting income and corporate taxes. “We will have to lower the taxes in the country, the income tax, the corporate tax and all the taxes,” he told the Telegraph. With the tax collection now accounting for less than 9pc of GDP, one of the lowest in the world, cutting taxes for the rich, without widening the tax base, is a recipe for disaster.

Mr Sharif’s government has already agreed to a $5.3billion IMF bailout package that will give breathing space to Pakistan’s ailing economy. The programme also requires Pakistan to bring down the whopping fiscal deficit. But can this be possible without radical tax reforms? Given this situation, the government will find it extremely difficult to comply with the terms of the IMF programme.

Mr Sharif appears much more conflicted and confused on the issue of terrorism. A large part of his address last week was devoted to the human and financial cost of rising militancy. He was right when he said that political stability and economic development is not possible without eradicating the menace. But his resolve seemed to weaken when it came to the issue of taking action against those challenging the state’s authority.

While holding out the possibility of a military option, Mr Sharif still seems to be hung up on the idea of a negotiated peace deal with the militants. What he does not realise is that such an approach has not worked in the past and there is no hope of it succeeding this time either. While the Taliban have made it very clear that they are prepared to talk only on their terms, the government seems to be hell-bent on placating them.

The government’s desperation to appease the Taliban was evident from the comment made by Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan during a TV interview that the previous administrations were not sincere in negotiations. He ruled out the use of force against the militants saying that dialogue was the only option.

Such remarks not only legitimise the terrorists, they may also weaken the resolve of our security forces battling them. The minister does not even want to have preconditions for the so-called peace talks. Nothing could be more defeatist than this.

There is an increasing perception that Mr Sharif is willing to reconcile with the militants as long as they spare Punjab from terrorist attacks. The reported divide between the Punjabi Taliban and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan over Mr Sharif”s offer for peace talks lends credence to the prevailing impression. Many believe that the prime minister has put on hold the hanging of two convicted members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi after the threat from the Punjabi Taliban. The group threatened to target top government leaders if the men were executed.

So, it was not surprising that the group welcomed Mr Sharif’s peace talks offer after the suspension of the execution order. Buying peace for one province at the cost of the country’s stability is certainly not going to work.

One expected that the third Sharif government may have learnt from past mistakes and would bring political stability to the strife-torn country. But the performance of the government so far does not instil much hope for the future. Mr Sharif needs to come out of his Wonderland before the situation becomes irreversible.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain