The prime minister’s follies

Shehbaz's missteps, many of which are quite amateurish in nature, have plunged PML-N’s prospects, much like those of Pakistan, into the dark.
Published January 24, 2023

Pakistan’s strategic planners have been searching for pliant governments for years, if not decades. One such plan was to insert Shehbaz Sharif, the current prime minister of Pakistan, into the prime minister’s office back in the late 1990s — this has been a documented fact, including in Nasim Zehra’s must-read book From Kargil to the Coup.

Today, almost 25 years later, the junior Sharif is firmly seated in the prime minister’s office. The desired outcome, however, remains a pipe dream as Pakistan literally and figuratively plunges into darkness.

Much can be said and written about how and why running a province — one as populated as Punjab — is a totally different thing from running a country. But the prime minister’s problems emanate less from the difference in governing Lahore and Islamabad and more with his own missteps, many of which are quite amateurish in nature.

Sluggish decision-making

Let’s start with the early days of his ascent to power. Most folks with even half an eye on the economy knew that the incoming government would inherit one on the brink. The solution was to act aggressively and with conviction, starting with the reversal of the disastrous fuel subsidy announced by the outgoing prime minister and his government. But instead of acting at the proverbial “Shehbaz Speed” for which he is known, the prime minister decided to go slow. This meant that the crisis both worsened — it dug a deeper fiscal hole for the government — and the price hike became Sharif’s problem.

Once the decision to make difficult choices and bring the IMF programme back on track was made, Sharif floundered again, this time failing to assert his authority on his own party members.

Sitting in London, Ishaq Dar began undermining his own party’s finance minister, giving regular interviews and indirectly influencing a public discourse that undermined the ruling party’s economic decision-making. Not only did this undermine confidence in the economy and the authority of the man running the economy, it also brought to the forefront the internal divides within the PML-N.

The return of Dar

To resolve these challenges, the prime minister decided to defer to his elder brother, the third misstep of his short tenure. Regular huddles in London, many in person at Nawaz Sharif’s own residence, showed the entire world that the shots were being called not by the prime minister, but by his elder brother. This reinforced the view that the PML-N was not on the same page in terms of how to emerge from the crisis. Furthermore, it gave an opening to Imran Khan and his followers, who rightfully argued that running a sovereign country facing multiple crises via London was an abomination.

This deference ultimately led to the ouster of Dr Miftah Ismail and the insertion of Ishaq Dar into the finance ministry — a tragic choice that has exponentially worsened the crisis facing Pakistan’s economy.

As the political drama heated up, with Imran and his supporters threatening dissolution of the provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, one would have expected that the prime minister — a man who has ruled Punjab for years — would step up to the plate and directly oversee and execute his party’s Punjab strategy to counter Imran. But common sense measures were to be ignored again, with the Sharifs outsourcing the politicking to Rana Sanaullah and others.

All this while, Hamza Shehbaz, the prime minister’s son and opposition leader in Punjab, stayed abroad along with Maryam Nawaz. This undermined the party’s political strategy in Punjab, leading to a dramatic political loss as Imran succeeded in achieving his near-term political goals in the province.

Changing political landscape

The last thing that Shehbaz has failed to recognise is that the political landscape in Pakistan has been transformed radically. While some of it has to do with Imran’s own narrative, much of this change is part of the broader shifts in global politics.

Connected with each other through modern technologies, citizens around the world have developed a disdain for status quo elites, in particular those they see as dynasts. From Hillary Clinton in the United States to Rahul Gandhi in India, voters around the world are tired of the same old last names and want something different.

Rather than recognise this shift in Pakistan, the Sharifs decided to double down and keep it all in the family: he became prime minister, his son was chief minister, his niece was to lead the party, and another relative was to run the economy into the ground.

All of these missteps have combined to create the ongoing crises that are threatening to wipe out the PML-N from the Punjab.

The PML-N’s own leaders, including former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, are unhappy with the way they have been treated. But rather than make amends and recognise his mistakes, Shehbaz seems intent on continuing with the same old ways.

So long as that remains the case, the PML-N’s own prospects, much like those of Pakistan, remain dark.