Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Looking at Nawaz Sharif from New Delhi

The oath-taking is over and so is the job of assigning jobs to individual ministers. Beyond Nawaz Sharif becoming Prime Minister for a historic third-term, what strikes me is that the old team is back too.
From Ishaq Dar to Khwaja Asif, from Chaudhry Nisar to Ahsan Iqbal, loyalty has been rewarded by Nawaz Sharif. In the Prime Minister’s mind, he seems to want to begin from where he left off in 1999.
Sartaj Aziz, one-time finance and foreign minister, has returned as a key adviser on foreign and national security affairs. The circle is complete.
My Pakistani friends have told me time and again that Mian Sahab is a changed man. He’s learnt his lessons from the run-up to the 1999 coup and is now interested in working for the welfare of the people of Pakistan.
The fact is that he ran a whimsical, power-hungry government, which had to deal with the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests a year after taking power for the second time in 1997.
And, since I lived and reported from Pakistan at the time, I remember that lakhs of Pakistanis lost all their savings when their dollar accounts were frozen and told they could withdraw their money in rupees at a rate fixed by the government.
(I must add here that my own foreign currency account was frozen at the time as the government feared a run on the banks in the wake of the response nuclear tests conducted by Sharif’s government. After running around for weeks, I was able to withdraw my savings since exceptions were made for foreigners!).
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.
I want Mr. Sharif and his team to succeed – in delivering a regular and reliable power supply, in ending the Taliban menace through any medium that works, in building good relations with Afghanistan, India and the United States – success in everything that the people of Pakistan want.
Pakistan and the region would be a far better place if we could concentrate on commerce and not conflict.
On India, Mr. Sharif has made all the right noises. Even during his second term, the noises were pretty much in tune with the larger objective of engaging India. But the actions (in the form of Kargil) for which Sharif may or may not have been responsible were another story.
At the time, in 1997-1999, anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba were out in full force on the streets and the Prime Minister and his team could do little about it. There was also little doubt that the Army establishment of the time led by General Pervez Musharraf was fully backing these anti-India groups.
It’s key that this time round Mr. Sharif is able to translate his words into actual results. I’m a bit wary given the number of false starts India and Pakistan have made in the past two decades.
My sense is that having good relations with India and Afghanistan is intrinsically linked to Pakistan’s internal well-being.
If Pakistan moved steadily along the democratic path, if its rulers respect the rule of law and constitutional limits, and work seriously towards improving the lot of its people, then they and the region can hope for a better future.
If not, all of us might be in for a bad re-run with new characteristics.


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