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New Pak PM faces economic, political challenges

Shehbaz raised the Kashmir issue in familiar terms, accusing India of human rights abuses. He spoke of Kashmir in the same breath as Gaza.

New Pak PM faces economic, political challenges

Tough road: Throughout this year, PM Shehbaz Sharif (left) will have his hands full in extricating Pakistan out of its economic mess and managing the coalition. AP/PTI



Vivek Katju

Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

SHEHBAZ Sharif was elected by the Pakistan National Assembly (NA) to the office of the Prime Minister on March 3. The next day, he was administered the oath of office by President Arif Alvi. The ceremony at the Aiwan-e-Sadr (presidential palace) in Islamabad was attended by the leaders of the ruling coalition — the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan — and the military establishment. The chief ministers (CMs) of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan were also present. However, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) ‘leaders’ who contested and won their NA seats as independents, and have now ‘joined’ the Sunni Ittehad Council for technical reasons, boycotted the oath-taking. And so did the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province CM; he effectively belongs to the PTI too.

Thus, the oath-taking ceremony itself clearly showed the continuing deep political divisions within the country that the February 8 national elections have only exacerbated. Over the past few days, the coalition leaders have called for the healing of political wounds. Indeed, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has sought the formation of a judicial commission to look into the events of May 9 last year. On that day, former PM Imran Khan was taken into custody in a corruption case, and his supporters went on the rampage, targeting military installations in many cities. That caused a rift between army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir and other Generals. Munir purged the army of officers suspected of harbouring pro-Imran sentiments. Imran has been behind bars since then, and it will take a while before Munir lets him come out of prison.

Munir knows that the election results have shown that Imran enjoys massive popular support in KP and, more significantly, a large measure of public sympathy in Punjab. Neither Munir nor the Sharifs can afford to let Imran move around freely among the people. It is also doubtful if the army will really cooperate with a judicial commission, even if one is formed to investigate the May 9 developments. Hence, protests in the NA and the Punjab assembly are likely to continue, but the army will not allow major or long-lasting street agitations. It will be willing to go as far as is required to control demonstrations, especially if they turn violent.

Two tasks are left to be done under the coalition pact. The first is the election of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s President. The election is to take place on March 9. While the Opposition has fielded Mahmood Khan Achakzai as its candidate, Zardari should have no difficulty in emerging victorious. The second task is the allocation of portfolios. It is likely that this has already been worked out between the PML-N and the PPP. The finance minister will have to engage credibly with international donors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Nawaz Sharif may want Ishaq Dar to hold the portfolio once again, but his appointment will be controversial at a time when the economy is in a shambles. In his address to the NA, Shehbaz plainly and, at some length, put the very difficult economic situation before the Pakistani people.

Shehbaz said Pakistan’s debt payments were more than its government revenues; hence, it was borrowing to pay off debts, leading to the accumulation of greater debt. In such a situation, it was becoming difficult to meet even the requirements of maintaining the government machinery. He told the NA members that their salaries and allowances were also paid through loans. He said taxes had to be hiked and their evasion plugged. Another issue he stressed upon was electricity theft; it could not be allowed to go on, the PM said. He also expressed confidence that Pakistan had the natural and human resources to enter a high growth trajectory and aim to become a member of the G20 by 2030.

The G20 membership ambition can only be achieved if Pakistan is willing to undertake revolutionary steps, beginning with curtailing its defence expenditure. That would require normalising ties with India. It would also need the adoption of effective steps against the semi-feudal leaders and corrupt businessmen who support major parties. Neither the army nor the political class has displayed any desire for such basic changes. Pakistan will once again have to opt for an IMF programme and go cap in hand to donors. While no nation wants destabilisation in a nuclear-armed country, donor patience with the Pakistani leadership is running out for not putting its economic house in order.

Significantly, but not surprisingly, Shehbaz raised the Kashmir issue in familiar terms, accusing India of human rights abuses. He spoke of Kashmir in the same breath as Gaza. This was deliberate, for he wanted the Islamic ummah to see the two situations in the same light. The ummah will not do so for the simple reason that it is preposterous to compare Kashmir with Gaza. While Shehbaz is a sober and realistic administrator with experience in global affairs, the fact is that the Sharifs have always been hardliners on Kashmir. In this, they share the views of the army, though unlike the force, they have wanted the normalisation of economic and commercial relations with India in the past.

Throughout this year, Shehbaz will have his hands full in extricating Pakistan out of its economic mess and managing the coalition. He will not take on the army by intervening in what it considers its domain: the handling of the country’s security policy. At this time, the army’s main focus is on Pakistan’s western front, where it is facing problems with the Afghan Taliban, especially because of its continuing support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP is not willing to make peace with the army. In these conditions, Gen Munir is unlikely to disturb the ceasefire along the LoC, which has been continuing since February 2021.

#Gaza #human rights #Kashmir #Pakistan #Shehbaz Sharif


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