Liberal, conservative, realist or an Islamist

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The contradictions in Nawaz Sharif's policies are evident not only in his dealing with India, but also in his approach to governance domestically. He acts instinctively, without careful analysis of the consequences of his actions

Just before Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore Bus Yatra, his predecessor Inder Kumar Gujral told me that Mr Nawaz Sharif appeared to be a realistic, reasonable and rational leader. He recalled a conversation on Jammu & Kashmir, when Mr Sharif, a Kashmiri hailing from Anantnag, who was known to be an uncompromising hardliner on Kashmir, had realistically remarked: “Hum jantein hain ki ham Kashmir aapse lein nahin sakte aur aap humko Kashmir dein nahin sakte”. (“I know we cannot seize Kashmir from you and you cannot give Kashmir to us”.) Mr Sharif’s comments were made after his election in 1997 when, with his patronage, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, emerged as the most influential jihadi leader in Pakistan, dedicated to “unfurling the green flag of Islam in New Delhi, Washington and Tel Aviv”.

Mr Sharif was an impeccable host when Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Lahore. He is a great fan of Bollywood films and loves listening to the great hits of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar. These hits were played during a lunch Mr Sharif hosted for Mr Vajpayee. But, his authoritarian streak was evident when he refused to allow the Leader of the Opposition Benazir Bhutto to meet Mr Vajpayee. Moreover, Mr Vajpayee’s aircraft had barely taken off from Lahore, when Khalistan slogans and propaganda designed to incite visiting Sikh pilgrims from India were unleashed across gurdwaras in Lahore and Nankana Sahib. Unknown to Indian intelligence and the Army, units of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry were being infiltrated across the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir. Despite his denials, there is evidence that Mr Sharif was briefed about these deliberate transgressions of the LoC, both in Rawalpindi and Skardu. Did he not see the contradiction between embracing Mr Vajpayee on the one hand and unleashing the Pakistan Army to cross the LoC on the other?

Mr Sharif’s first term as Prime Minister was not uneventful, as far as Pakistan’s relations with India were concerned. One February 12, 1993, multiple bomb blasts rocked Mumbai resulting in 350 fatalities and around 1,200 injured. While Mumbai mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, now resident in Karachi, organised the explosions, the trail led to the involvement of Mr Sharif’s handpicked ISI chief Lieutenant  General Javed Nasir and to Mr Sharif himself. The attack was also a prelude to Mr Sharif’s ouster by then Pakistani President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Army chief General Kakkar. Despite what Mr Sharif told Gujral, the reality is that he has not hesitated to raise the issue of Jammu & Kashmir at every conceivable occasion in Pakistan and when abroad. Mr Sharif has, for long, sought to present Kashmir in the Islamic world as an issue of occupation of Muslim lands. Whether he would be amenable to adopting a more realistic path, in keeping with what he told Gujral remains to be seen. The world has after all changed dramatically since he was ousted and left in exile to Saudi Arabia in 1999.

Mr Sharif entered politics as a protégé of President Zia-ul Haq and his Governor of Punjab Lieutenant General Ghulam Jilani Khan. His father, long persecuted by Bhutto, was a natural ally of Zia’s military regime. After a brief tenure as Chief Minister of Punjab, Mr Sharif was catapulted to power as Prime Minister in 1990, heading an alliance of Islamist parties put together by Army chief General Aslam Beg and ISI chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani. But, the strange thing about Mr Sharif is that despite having been catapulted to power by the Army, he has been at constant loggerheads with successive Army chiefs. During his first term he was accused by the wife of Army chief Asif Nawaz of having been responsible for the General’s death. He was then sacked by his successor Waheed Kakkar following differences with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. In his second term, he chose to sack the mild-mannered Army chief General Jehangir Karamat.  General Pervez Musharraf, whom he appointed to replace Gen Karamat, ousted Mr Sharif from power, before incarcerating and exiling him to Saudi Arabia, over differences on who should take the blame for the Kargil fiasco.

Even in his third term, Mr Sharif’s relations with his handpicked Army chief Raheel Sharif have been uneasy, over the manner in which Gen Musharraf is being treated in cases filed against him. Disregarding the advice of the Army, Mr Sharif has got involved in an uncertain ‘peace process’ with the Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan. Mr Sharif is involved in a political contest with Mr Imran Khan about who is the greater supporter of extremist Sunni Islamist outfits. Matters are complicated by the symbiotic relationship between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban. Thus, while a so-called ‘peace process’ is underway between the Sharif Government and the TTP, the Pakistani Armed Forces are not observing the ceasefire and Pakistan Air Force jets are bombing and strafing TPP hideouts. An already volatile situation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is set to become even more tense and complicated.

The prevailing situation can only strengthen the Wahhabi-oriented extremist armed groups in Pakistan, as Mr Sharif and Mr Khan compete for political space across the radical Islamic right. Given the sullen mood in the Army, which has its own axes to grind when it comes to pet its projects of ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts’ and seeking ‘strategic depth’ via the Taliban in Afghanistan, the present situation is a recipe for the breakdown of governance in large parts of Pakistan.

The irony is that this situation arises from rivalry between the Oxford-educated Mr Khan and the billionaire businessman Mr Sharif — both of whom have enlightened views on the role of women in national life. When Mr Sharif was incarcerated, it was his wife Kulsoom who took over leadership of his party and waged a gutsy struggle against Gen Musharraf. His daughter Maryam plays an active role in his ruling party. The contradictions in Mr Sharif’s policies are evident not only in his dealing with India, but also in his approach to governance domestically. He is given to acting instinctively, without careful analysis of the consequences of his actions, like during the Kargil conflict.

Sadly, few of our national leaders, perhaps with the exception of PV Narasimha Rao, understood how to deal with a complex personality like Mr Sharif. As a new Government is scheduled to assume office soon in South Block, it will hopefully avoid getting starry-eyed about the prospects of immediate ‘breakthroughs’ and ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue’ in relations with Pakistan.

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