Caught in crossfire

Shehbaz Sharif faces an uphill task ahead

Kashmir Magazine

Avinash Mohananey

Irrespective of the misgivings that have emerged over the legitimacy of the newly formed government in Pakistan, the countries that influence the country’s geo-strategic policies have congratulated Shehbaz Sharif on becoming prime minister.
Congratulating Shehbaz, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the need for both countries to work together in all fields, particularly building jointly an upgraded version of China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The US ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, wrote on X (formerly Twitter), that he is looking forward to working with the government and the people of Pakistan. However, before accepting the results, the US had to coin a new term of elections being “clearly competitive” to sidestep the rigging allegations.
The US has also taken note of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message to Shehbaz Sharif. While answering an obviously pre-determined question, Mathew Miller the US State Department spokesperson said, “We would welcome productive and peaceful talks between India and Pakistan, but the pace, scope and character of any dialogue is a matter for India and Pakistan to determine”.
But the crucial question is how much policy space is the Pakistan army willing to concede to the Shehbaz Sharif’s government to deal with the growing geo-strategic challenges in the region and the situation that the country is facing on the economic and internal security fronts?
Right now, Sharif is caught in the crossfire between the army and incarcerated former prime minister Imran Khan.
Conveying a stern warning to Imran and his backers, the army chief, Asim Munir, while addressing corps commanders on March 05, reiterated that “planners, instigators, abettors and perpetrators and desecrators” of monuments of “martyrs” and military installations on May 09 last year would certainly be brought to justice.
He deplored all those who were maligning and leveling unsubstantiated charged against the army on social media for interference in the electoral process.
The army would continue using numerous cases against Imran Khan and his supporters to deal with him and his narrative firmly. At the same time, it would like the new government to fight the battle against Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), inside Parliament and Punjab assembly, and on the streets of Pakistan. Not an easy task for Sharif, given the fact that he lacked popular support. Sharif’s niece, Maryam Nawaz, who has taken over as the chief minister of the most populous province of Punjab, is in a similar predicament.
Sharif got a taste of what was in store for him on the very first day of his election as prime minister in the parliament on March 03. A shaky Sharif was continuously heckled during his speech by PTI members accusing him and his party, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, of being “mandate thieves”. As such, the Sharif government is heavily dependent on the army to keep its flock together for stability and smooth functioning of the government.
The most difficult challenge that the new government would be facing will be the political fallout of the agreement that Pakistan is trying to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for extended fund facility.
As always, the IMF will push for more liberalization, deregulation and privatization of the economy, which invariably hits the masses hard. Already, the people are suffering from a back breaking inflation of 32%, with essential commodities like wheat flour and sugar registering a spike. With the month of fasting (Ramadhan) round the corner, tempers may already be running high.
Insiade Adiala jail in Rawalpindi, Khan is said to be getting impatient to get out and confront the new government and its backers in the army. He even wrote a letter to the IMF that it should not agree to a program without auditing the recently held elections.
It is now about a month since elections were held, but he continuous to be ignored by the army. Through his legislators and supporters, he is leaving no stone unturned to paralyse the functioning of the new government in parliament and on the streets.
Therefore, the main task before the new government is to smoothen the impact of the IMF’s conditionalities- like rise in utility prices, ending subsidies, increasing tax collection and freeing rupee from control on the common man.
One way to do this would be to open trade with India and import essential commodities, particularly food and medicines, to address the issue of shortages and price spikes. Such occasion may become frequent due to climate change induced crop failures.
Bilateral trade would also be beneficial for farmers of states like Punjab, Haryana and Himachal, as this new market would be easily accessible, and they would get remunerative prices for their produce. But it would happen only when Asim Munir also adopts the “Bajwa doctrine” of giving high importance to geo-economic interests of Pakistan. For that, Pakistan’s army will have to keep Kashmir on the back burner.
From the statement of Matthew Miller, it becomes clear that the US and other friendly countries like the UAE would be gently nudging the two countries towards a cooperative relationship once elections are over in India. It may be noted that mediation by the UAE had ensured that the truce on the international border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir in February 2021 was still holding.
But before any bold steps are taken, Khan will have to be either tamed or taken on board. Otherwise, it could boomerang badly both on the army and the Sharif government, creating huge political turmoil in the country.