There was little to cheer in 2021. Internal politics was riven by acrimony, instability and uncertainty. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government unleashed the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against the opposition but failed to get a single conviction, in the process roundly discrediting itself and the watchdog. Most significantly, Imran Khan irrevocably lost his sheen as well as the “one page” narrative with the Miltablishment that brought him into office and propped him up for three years. Meanwhile, the opposition took advantage of the situation to put options on the table for the Miltablishment going forward.
PTI government mismanagement and corruption plunged the economy into a trough. Galloping inflation and unprecedented unemployment laid the working and lower-middle classes low. In consequence, the PTI was routed in almost all by-elections. It also lost the elections to cantonment boards across the country and in local bodies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Foreign policy options dwindled over time. Relations with China were frozen. Those with America turned prickly. The Saudis became sullen. India remained hostile. Even Afghanistan stopped listening to us. So, today, internal security is fragile because the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is continuing to attack our security forces from across the border while a new militant religious force (Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan) has risen to pose a serious challenge to the writ of the state and to our relations with Europe. The only silver lining has been containment of Covid-19, thanks to planeloads of free vaccines from sympathetic donors like China and the WHO.
Looking ahead to 2022, the challenges are manifest. NAB must be reformed to become a fair and efficient watchdog under an upright and neutral chairman. The Election Commission of Pakistan must be encouraged and empowered to guarantee free and fair elections under reformed electoral laws. The economy must shed wasteful and unproductive expenditures while making the tax system more efficient and equitable. Donors and foreign investors must be facilitated to lend and profit in an environment of trust, stability and certainty. Relations with neighbours and foreign powers must be repaired and normalized in our own interest. Militant religiosity must be nipped in the bud. The notion that tanks and guns can provide national security must be supplemented with a narrative of national power based on bread and butter. And so on. But none of these objectives can be achieved under the present PTI-led dispensation that has squandered a historic opportunity to set things right with the help of supportive pillars of the state.
Many people are inclined to ask how a PMLN government that replaces the PTI regime this year might tackle the myriad problems faced by Pakistan. One short answer is that, all other things being equal, Shahbaz Sharif is a better, more experienced and capable administrator than Imran Khan, so that factor alone should lead to greater productivity of given resources. It is also true that he can expect to wield greater leverage and enjoy more trust with foreign donors and investors on the basis of their good experience dealing with him as Chief Minister Punjab for many years. Man to man, too, Nawaz Sharif has a track record of soft-spoken humility in his relations with the Saudi and Qatari royal families, with US President Joe Biden, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Narendra Modi of India, unlike Imran Khan whose arrogance and strident nature has alienated world leaders. So we may expect these factors to tip the scales in favour of a PMLN regime. Over and above all these factors, the PMLN may listen to good advice to take tough decisions early in its tenure so that it can enjoy the fruits of its labour closer to when the next elections are due. It is a truism that an unpopular selected regime cannot take hard decisions like a popular mandated one. Last but not least, the core PMLN team comprising stalwarts like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Ishaq Dar, Miftah Ismail, Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Asif, Musaddak Malik, Khurram Dastgir Khan, Maryam Aurangzeb, Azam Tarrar, etc., wielding both experience and professionalism are leaps ahead of comparative do-ers in any other party.
The last PMLN government was chugging along well enough until it was derailed by a Miltablishment conspiracy that ousted Nawaz Sharif and brought in Imran Khan. Mr Sharif’s crime lay in wanting to “normalize” with India by shutting down the Lashkar-e-Tayba and Jaish-e-Mohammad “jihad” against India and leaning on the Afghan Taliban to negotiate peace with the American-supported Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul for an inclusive dispensation. But the Miltablishment had contrarian ideas. Now it is lumped with a hostile India that is sponsoring separatism, insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan, a cold Taliban regime in Kabul that is providing safe havens to TTP and an unfriendly US regime that holds Pakistan responsible for its humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. Since Imran Khan is unable or unwilling to fix these issues, the Miltablishment is having to eat crow and turn to Nawaz Sharif to put the country back on the rails.
Everything now hinges on how quickly and efficiently this about turn can be effected by the Miltablishment. That, in turn, depends on how a sufficient degree of trust can be built on both sides, with or without international guarantees, to implement a formula for power-sharing and good governance.