THIS weekend Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif completes 150 days in his office. In these five months, the chief executive of the country spent one month abroad on one private and five official visits. Only June, his first month in office, saw him at home - as if the enormity of problems facing the nation had left him thunderstruck and immobilised.
But come July his foreign visits started - as if the solutions lay there. That contrasted sharply with his PML-N teammates’ tall claims that the party had come to power the third time well prepared with homemade remedies.
In the first week of July, he undertook a five-day visit to China, the time-tested friend of Pakistan, indeed a friend in need. The next month PM Nawaz Sharif went on a six-day private visit to Saudi Arabia for Umra, the lesser pilgrimage that brings more blessings if undertaken during Ramazan as he did.
The pilgrimage also provided him the opportunity to put his nation’s economic woes to the Saudi monarchy, which had played host when he was in political exile in the holy land.
For sure, the pilgrimage brought him political gains as in his absence a PML-N leader petitioned the Supreme Court to put off the date of presidential election and the court upheld the request. That made the PPP, PML-N’s main rival, boycott the rescheduled election.
PM Nawaz Sharif travelled to Turkey in September to seek help in overcoming his economic woes. The number of commercial agreements that the visit produced in the energy and transport sectors made Turkey look a new partner and hope in economic revival of Pakistan.
However, the talk on the grapevine is that the warming up of economic relations reflects the Sharif family’s business interests more than economic sense.
PM Nawaz Sharif’s next two trips to the US, spanning September and October, were seriously important as both entailed consequences for the nation.
But his first important meeting there in September, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual session, ended in a faux pas over “village hags”.
His all-important meeting with President Barack Obama in October brought US aid and support to Pakistan, but also shame.
A cartoon in the New York Times summed up the result by showing Obama, with a remote control in his hand, releasing a sackful of dollars from a drone to the Pakistani prime minister waiting on the ground.
At home, the refrain was that PM Nawaz Sharif was going to demand a stop to drone attacks on Pakistani territory.
In November, the prime minister is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Foreign visits have become more important for heads of governments in the globalised world, but not at the cost of less attention to, or ignoring, problems at home.
If PM Sharif keeps his current pace, he may surpass the 40 plus foreign visits his PPP predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani undertook in his four years in the office.
Critics of the PML-N government link its perceived inattention to the pressing domestic issues to the prime minister’s frequent absence abroad.
Last Tuesday, PML-Q Senator Kamil Ali Agha particularly noted Mr Sharif’s oft visits to London. “Prime Minister has gone to London six times. Has our capital shifted to London?” he asked in the Senate.
Leader of the opposition, Syed Khurshid Shah, also has repeatedly accused the PM of spending too little time in Islamabad. He has a point because even when in the country the prime minister’s preferred place is Lahore.
What disturbs the opposition most is that non-selection of chairpersons of the National Assembly standing committees has virtually held the parliament hostage for long. State minister of parliamentary affairs Sheikh Aftab assures every time the issue is raised that the proposed names for the committees’ heads are lying with the prime minister and he would finalise them “on his return from abroad”.
However, the situation remains that no legislation can be undertaken because the standing committees are dysfunctional without their heads. For instance, the important Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly is unable to scrutinise the questionable expenditures made by the previous governments because the PM has not approved its chairperson.
Scores of national entities are awaiting appointment of their chief executives. For example, Pakistan International Airline (PIA), Pakistan Steel Mills and Pakistan Television are being run on ad hoc basis.
Likewise other national issues are not receiving due attention of the government.
While, the hydra-headed monster of terrorism has become existential threat to the country for many, the government is yet to implement visibly the all parties-mandated talks with the Taliban. PTI’s Imran Khan said last week that he had asked the prime minister to stay in the country and play his leading role, instead of going on foreign tours.
Although government members defend the PM’s visits by asking how could he avoid meeting President Obama and other world leaders when a complex situation would be emerging for Pakistan after Nato and US forces leave Afghanistan next year?
But the critics ask: “Shouldn’t he appoint a foreign minister to deal with the other mundane issues and other countries?” The country needs his presence more than foreign capitals, they say.