Understanding Nawaz Sharif – by Amir Mateen

Amir Mateen has recently written a series of extremely interesting and thought provoking articles on Nawaz Sharif and his politics.

Amir has in the past written some of the most balanced articles on Pakistani politics, for example, his piece on the goods and bads of Zardari which was published in Dawn on 6 February 2008, in which he writes:

The biggest task before Asif is to keep the party together….and,…The biggest challenge for Asif Zardari is more personal than political. He needs to get rid of his past for the sake of his future…and,…For many, Benazir’s legacy may be bigger than her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. One, she was a continuation of ZAB whose political career was relatively short. It spanned a little over a decade if we take the PPP formation as the milestone. In Benazir’s case, a whole generation grew up with her.

In this post, we provide a compilation of Amir Mateen’s most recent articles in which he provides a critical perspective on Mian Nawaz Sharif’s politics:

Part 1

The changing politics of Nawaz Sharif

Saturday, March 27, 2010
By Amir Mateen

ISLAMABAD: Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s slip of the tongue about requesting the Taliban to spare the Punjab may have triggered graver concerns as to the inner thinking of the party supposedly in waiting to hold power in Islamabad. The changing style of Nawaz Sharif’s cult politics, the pointed-top organisational pyramid and his party’s ambivalent position on crucial issues like the growing religious militancy and terrorism, the security paradigm, economic revival, and stance towards the US, India and Afghanistan necessitates more explanations than are available from the second biggest party of Pakistan.

The PML-N offers a vague one-size-fits-all policy on most issues. The idea is to keep the mainstream swing voters in a flux and show the real teeth once the levers of power are in control. The same strategy is in practice within the party where nobody knows who is going to do what in a future power set-up. A deliberate chaos has been created where all PML-N leaders are saying all things to all people. The real position, if there is one, is only known to Nawaz Sharif.

The party is likely to perform better than its earlier governments, if their hopes of returning to power in Islamabad materialize, or definitely better than the PPP government. But the PML-N is far short of the nirvana its sympathisers are hoping it to deliver.

The PML-N, to be fair, has fought a historic fight and bounced back from a near oblivion to stake its claim for a third round of power in Islamabad. It seems to have learnt a few lessons this time around. There has not been a major corruption scandal against the party. The PML-N seems to have developed respect for public opinion as shown in the case of supporting the judiciary movement and also by sacking elected members when found on a wrong foot. It has supported a democratic continuity and has refrained from becoming a tool in the hands of the establishment to dislodge the PPP government in the Centre — even after the provocative dissolution of their government in the Punjab. The party took a firm stance against the Army’s involvement in politics and did not fall in line to please the Americans overly.

Nawaz Sharif stands taller as a political leader with his closest rivals, after Benazir’s assassination, placed at a distant second position. He has the longest tenure in power than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and even dictators Ayub, Zia and Musharraf. In his 27-year political career, he has been in power for 13 years — two years as Punjab minister, five years as Punjab chief minister and almost six years as twice prime minister.

Yet we still don’t know enough about him. What are his habits; his likes and dislikes? What does he read, if at all he does? There is more emphasis on his food habits than his mental and intellectual growth, particularly after his return from exile. What are his perceptions about the rapidly changing Pakistan and the world around him?

All we know is that Nawaz Sharif has been sucked into alarmingly dynastic politics of his family, his Kashmiri clan and few loyalists. The involvement of his family in politics and decision-making continues to grow.

First, it was just Nawaz Sharif. Then brother Shahbaz Sharif came along followed by Abbas Sharif, who did a stint as member of the National Assembly. There was always some issue about their late father Mian Sharif’s role as a guide from the back seat. Nawaz Sharif’s exile created a situation where his wife Kalsoom had to enter politics and exposed the next generation of the Sharifs to politics. Nawaz Sharif’s eldest Hussain was put in jail and younger Hassan had to travel all over the world for seeking help for the family.

The two brothers are out of active politics but son-in-law Safdar has entered the arena with an extra vigour. Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza learnt the ropes of politics through tough times in jail and has since joined active politics. His younger brother Salman is also politically ambitious and wants to join this charade of family grandees. Shahbaz Sharif’s third wife Tehmina Durrani, an author and an able person in her own right, is believed to be quite an influence on his political thinking. Ishaq Dar is also in the family after his son got married to Nawaz Sharif’s daughter.

If this jigsaw of family tree in politics was not enough, the involvement of the larger Kashmiri clan makes it more complicated. Kashmiris, they say, have a common grandmother. This web of distant relatives commands much more power than earlier, particularly in the central Punjab. MNA Khawaja Saad Rafiq is handy as a helping hand to manage Lahore and so are his MPA wife Asma and MPA brother Salman. Another Kashmiri Khawaja Ehsan is prominent all around and so are Sohail Zia Butt and his MNA son Omer in Lahore. Ghulam Dastgir and his MNA son Khurram oversee Gujranwala; Sher Ali and his MNA son Abid control Faisalabad, while Khawaja Asif is the ultimate authority in the affairs related to Sialkot — and much beyond.

It is widely believed in Lahore that if your name has a suffix of Kashmiri castes like Butt, Mir, Lone, Khawaja, Dar or Banday, you have a better chance of your grievance being addressed. The joke around town is that, like the clannish Chaudharies of Gujrat who tried to envision ‘Jattistan,’ the new move is to create the Islamic Republic of Butt-istan.

In the earlier PML phase, most political heavyweights like Gohar Ayub, Ejazul Haq, Majid Malik, Sheikh Rashid, Chaudhary Shujaat had grown in politics together with Nawaz Sharif. They had the collective weight to exercise more participation in decision-making. The crucial decision-making in the new PML-N is confined to a small number of close family members. The only outsiders with some weight are Chaudhary Nisar, Ahsan Iqbal and Pervaiz Rashid. All three of them have learnt the ways to survive in the dominant Kashmiri culture where food is discussed more than foreign policy.

Others like Raja Zafarul Haq, Zulfiqar Khosa, Tehmina Daultana, Mehtab Abbasi, Ghous Ali Shah are given lots of respect but this is more ceremonial than concrete. Everybody knows that Javed Hashmi is out of favours yet nobody talks about it. It is only in muted whispers that people will tell you that he was almost sold out to hijack PML while Nawaz Sharif was abroad. Everybody will deny this on record but it is obvious that he is given a cosmetic respect.

The ultimate decision making power, everybody agrees, is Nawaz Sharif. He forms an opinion by discussing things with the members of the family, clan and a handful of loyalists. A facade of consultation is devised where party elders are asked for their opinions. In nine cases out of 10, they try to give the opinion, which they think the great leader has already arrived at.

Nawaz Sharif then makes announcements, which are final. Nobody dares question his word and never in public. Welcome to democracy — the PML-N style.

To be continued


Part 2

Don’t try deciphering Pir Nawaz Sahib-II

Sunday, March 28, 2010
By Amir Mateen

ISLAMABAD: Nawaz Sharif in his role as the Quaid of the PML-N has placed himself a degree higher than mundane leadership. A deliberate aura has been created where he is presented almost as a cult leader with his devotees, their eyes shining with respect, are not encouraged to question his great wisdom. He is revered like a Pir, more in the fashion of MQM’s Altaf Bhai than the leader of a mainstream democratic party.

The party is drifting fast from the culture of collective leadership to a One-Man decision-making body. The party’s organisational structure stands dissolved since last year. The earlier structure, still displayed on the party website, has 60 plus Nadir Pervaiz as in-charge of Youth Affairs, another 45 plus Rana Ashraf heads the student wing; Chartered Accountant Ishaq Dar is the President of International Affairs.

PML-N Spokesman Pervaiz Rashid is hopeful that the new organisational structure will be in place by June. The party leadership, on the contrary, does not seem in a rush to accomplish the deadline. It suits Nawaz Sharif as this allows him to keep the reins of power in his hands. He can issue commands from his recluse in Raiwind without having to commit himself on issues. This may be one of the reasons that he did not contest the recent by-elections to become the leader of the opposition. Absolute power or the present arrangement of being in power in the Punjab and in opposition in Islamabad suits him better.

The problem is that the world outside is not being allowed enough to peek into his mind. We don’t know his new perceptions on crucial issues and what his ascent to power will mean for Pakistan, the region and the world. There is a well thought-out strategy to block extra exposure of him. He appears in crowded press conferences on special issues where there is little chance of exploring his mind in other areas. Interviews are rare and granted only either to ‘likeminded’ journalists or to those who are likely to give positive impression on specified issues. His media managers generally ask for the list of questions and have sometimes asked not to probe on, let’s say, the Taliban or the US. There have been instances when Nawaz Sharif stopped the interview half way because the questioner slightly delved into a no-go area.

Journalists complain that the PML-N, in contrast to the thick skinned PPP, is over-sensitive and over-reacts even on minor criticism. This view was shared by six senior editors and news directors of major TV channels in an informal gathering the other day. A web of mystery and enigma shrouds Nawaz Sharif. Nobody suggests that a person who has been in power for so long could be less than extraordinarily intelligent. But if you try to double check if there has been any addition to Nawaz Sharif’s great wisdom or if you delve into a no-go-area of the family or the clan, you should be ready for a nasty response.

A top PML-N leader was asked simple questions about Nawaz Sharif’s children and as to what they were doing. The gentleman gave some information reluctantly, his tone betraying that he did not like the line of questioning. When asked how many wives and children does Shahbaz Sharif have, he flared up instantly. It took some effort to explain that when a politician offers him or herself for a public life, he or she may not have the same rights to secrecy as a private citizen does. He was asked that if Mustafa Khar’s wives and Asif Zardari’s philandering could be discussed, why could not a journalist ask a benign question about, what the number of wives and children the chief minister of the biggest province may have. The question becomes more pertinent when the public has to borne the expense for the security of several official residences. There is the grand official residence renovated by Pervaiz Elahi for criminally massive expense, now being used for the CM Secretariat; the residences of the CM’s first wife in Defence and the third wife’s in Gulberg; the ancestral home in Model Town and the royal state of Jatti Umrah in Raiwind. Half his time for ‘great governance’ gets wasted shuttling among them. So how about his second wife?

He banged the phone down, only to call again after five minutes to apologise over his “blood pressure” and to request that his name be withheld. The parting shot was: “Khaba Khaayay kissi din (Let’s eat some day).” This was a typical PML-N response, almost like the ‘mitti pao’ (bury it down) creed of PML-Q.

There is a whole rent-a-journalist service available where key members are manoeuvred to be placed on key jobs in media groups. They have a licence to score even with anybody who dares to cross the line. It was created in the 1980s, Alhamdulillah, by the PML of that time, and perfected by Mushahid Hussain in the 1990s and then ruthlessly used by the Musharraf government against its founders. The service is all set to be used again next time they are in power in Islamabad.

The problem with Nawaz Sharif is that he thinks that if you are not with him, you are against him. He actually asked me and Dawn’s Zaffar Abbass in Parliament corridors: “I can’t understand which side you are on.” I recall Zaffar saying that we take it as a compliment. Perhaps, Nawaz Sharif needs to judge journalists in black and white terms. There is a whole brigade of new media waiting for them. Until then, Khaba Khao.

To be continued


Part 3

Special Report-PML-N Part-III

It takes more than Jalib to be progressive

Monday, March 29, 2010
By Amir Mateen

ISLAMABAD: With the media overly focused on the PPP, Nawaz Sharifís PML has been sneakily enjoying the best of both worlds — power in the Punjab and opposition in Islamabad. The about turn on the constitutional package has exposed the larger problems of the PML-Nís decision-making apparatus. Nawaz Sharifís quirkiness may just be the tail of the elephantine mess of politically incorrect trends and contradictions developed in the last two years.

The PML-N has become increasingly the Punjab — some say Lahore — centric. It did not get enough seats in the last elections from provinces other than the Punjab because, admittedly, it did not get enough time to campaign. It continues to take other provinces for granted. As if they are bound to fall into the PML-N’s lap just because of the PPPís dismal performance and the PML-Qís virtual ouster from the electoral ring. This may not be true. The PML-N took credit in the past for bringing ethnic, religious and nationalist parties into mainstream politics. It was partners with parties like the MQM, the ANP, the JUI, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the BNM and the BNP at one time or another, but stands totally isolated now.

It has a war with the MQM; a tussle with the ANP over the renaming of the NWFP; tension with the JUI-F as Maulana Fazlur Rehman feels more comfortable with its coalition partner Asif Zardari; fight with the Jamaat-e-Islami as proven in the recent Lahore by-election; and no political relations with the Baloch nationalists who are in coalition with the PPP in Quetta. It has become more a symbol of division than cohesion.

The isolation is less because of policies than the arrogance that oozes out of top PML-N leaders. They are so confident about a repeat of 1997 when they got their famous ëheavy mandateí in the next elections that they think they do not need anybody. A culture of sycophancy that was the hallmark of their two earlier governments, contributing to their fall, has already seeped in. With a vengeance, they say.

A former principal secretary, who thought he was ultimate in sweet talk, said he was outsmarted recently by a former ambassador who advises Nawaz on foreign policy, rather badly I must say. Nawaz was musing that “if I became the prime minister” when suddenly his words were hijacked by the ambassador. ìHow can you say If prime minister,” he protested so loudly that everybody was taken aback. Nawaz tried to move on but the ambassador did not let him proceed until he conceded that he was the prime minister, already was and will always be. He was addressed as prime minister during exile and, they say, he still likes it.

The joke in the party is that his best adviser is his masseur because he knows which words to say by pulling which nerve. And there are lots of ëpolitical malashiasí around. The likes of man mountain Sohail Zia Butt are welcomed in the court because they provide comic relief to the ‘PM’.

A policy of convenient amnesia is practised where principles are increasingly compromised at the altar of expediency. The PML like-minded group of 53 Punjab MPAs (basically Q turncoats) has been conveniently accepted. All of them have the SHOs and Tehsildars of their choice appointed in their areas. Shahbaz Sharif stirred hype by throwing out nearly 6,000 ëcorruptí officials when he became the CM. Most of them, particularly ranks below DCOs and DPOs, are back as desired by local MPAs and MNAs. So much for the good governance. This has contributed to the wave of unending corruption and crime in the Punjab, making it easier for the Taliban to consolidate their hold.

Turncoats, Rana Nazir and Sahi brothers, have already been accepted. Negotiations were held for accepting many more when the Governorís Rule was imposed in the Punjab. It is quite possible that Chaudhry Shujaat, Mushahid Hussain, Khurshid Kasuri and virtually everyone, except Sheikh Rashid and Pervaiz Elahi, might be taken back before the next elections.

This prompts contradictions. The dictatorship of Musharraf was bad but not that of Zia, as the recent electoral victory of Zia League candidate proved in Bahawalnagar. The PML-N did not put up a candidate. The PML-Nís ideology, if any, is as much confusing as the definition of the right and the left in Pakistan. Traditionally, the party was right of the Centre. Lately, it is swinging ëboth waysí to the extreme. Claims were made to the true legacy of Bhutto.

Nawaz Sharif, we were told, was practising on Bhuttoís speeches; Shahbaz Sharif started reciting Jalib and Faiz in public. It should take more than Jalibís recitation to be a progressive, particularly for someone who cannot even declare his wives.

The swings to the extreme right have been worse, if not dangerous. The country and its Army are fighting the biggest fight of their history against terrorism. Yet the second biggest party, which is also the government-in-waiting, extends a muted support. The PML-N has never declared the war against terror as the biggest issue of the country. Like it or not, this has been the single largest encouragement for the Taliban. Talibanisation is growing and bomb explosions are ripping through the entire Punjab. Yet we wait for a heavy crackdown on Madrassas or militant outfits with a bated breath.

Who is the biggest influence on Nawaz Sharif for his drift towards the extreme right? Some say itís his speechwriter who was given an honourary sash at Akhora Khattakís famous Madrassa that produced half of the Jihadis. Others say there are lots of men like MPA Saeed Elahi who profess to be an ex-Jihadi with continuing links. Half of Nawaz Sharifís team, like Raja Zafarul Haq, Chaudhry Nisar and Javed Hashmi, was groomed in the Jihadi nursery of Ziaul Haq. Still others allege that Nawaz Sharif himself is more a Taliban than all of them. But then, this may be an exaggeration about his quirky aberrations. A group of journalist friends, while seeing him in the Prime Minister’s House, asked him why he had got all billboards with the women pictures removed and banned the shampoo ads. His response was that they were showing women shampooing hair, which incited ëwrong ideasí (Ganday Khayalat) in minds. ìMian Sahib, if they will not show hair in a shampoo ad, will it be your or my bald heads,î Mohammad Malick of The News could not resist saying. Mian Sahib was bald till then.

No harm in being on the right side of ideology. The Jamaat-e-Islami opposes the Army operation and itís a declared position, which, by the way, got them mere 3,000 votes in Lahore. Nawaz Sharif should declare whatever position his party has on such issues. It should not trickle out only in slips of the tongue.

Pervaiz Rashid was asked: who was the biggest ideologue in the party? ëNawaz Sharifí pat came the answer. “Hum Bhi dekhain gain.”

The series continues

Part 4

Special Report PML-N-IV

Policy making through ‘Dhobi Patka’ — Bholu style

Tuesday, March 30, 2010
By Amir Mateen

ISLAMABAD: The biggest PML-N plank is that it promises a better government in Islamabad than being run by the PPP.

Nawaz Sharif believes that the PPP under Asif Zardari is going downhill and he hopes that this fruit of power will fall in his lap in due time. And with a bang of ‘heavy mandate.’

It is a pity that Nawaz Sharif’s political existence is still defined in opposition to the PPP despite being there in politics for 27 years and in power for 13 years. The PML-N still does not stand on its own.

The party leadership starts babbling if you ask such questions: What is your ideology? What is your vision about resolving Pakistan’s economic woes and revamping agriculture and industry? How will you resolve energy and water crises? What is your security paradigm? How about relations with India?

Tension mounts further when you delve into more critical areas: How do we handle the growing menace of Taliban and religious extremists? How much further should the Army be involved in Fata operations? How do we renegotiate civil-military relations to stop the future Khaki excursions? What should we do when and if the Americans leave Afghanistan? How do we balance between the need for American money and their political agenda? Individuals will give opinion in their personal capacity on these issues but there is no clarity on party position. The party website offers a manifesto, which was meant for the elections and stands obsolete. It is more rhetoric and does not give any concrete answers on specific issues.

It seems the PML-N has wasted the last two years and not done enough homework on their policies on issues that have become critical for the country. PML-N Information Secretary Ahsan Iqbal says that a few policy formation committees were made and they meet occasionally. But he acknowledged that the pace of work might not have been ideal. He could not say that the PML-N has done its homework to grab power but no work on how and where to use it. Is it because of incompetence or there is some strategy behind it? A bit of both may be. Nawaz has not developed a team of political specialists who could control and guide bureaucracy for right execution despite enjoying the longest tenure in power.

The PML-N is short of experienced people. Most veterans have switched over and the new ones have a little or no exposure of the government. And there is no atmosphere for learning either. Poor Ahsan Iqbal is misfit in a culture where the Sharif brothers are using the wrestling tactics practised by their cousin Bholu Pehlwan in foreign affairs and national security. (Kulsoom Nawaz is the great granddaughter of the only world-wrestling champion from united India, Gama Pehlwan). Give us power and we shall sort this country out through ‘dhobi Patka’ seems the idea.

They are good at criticising the PPP but offer no alternative solutions. The concept of a shadow government is alien to them. Nobody knows who needs to specialise in which ministry. Opaqueness works well as everybody looks to Pir Nawaz for throwing the candy at him or her in the end. However, the opaqueness in policies keeps the voters confused. A few trends could be predicted for the future cabinet though. There will be lots of Kashmiris around. And Ishaq Dar, who is now a relative plus Kashmiri, may be given more than his previous two ministries of commerce and finance. Women nominees for parliament, like the case now, except for Ishrat Ashraf, will be Chachis, Mamis and Khalas of their Kashmiri brethren, having no exposure to politics.

Experience tells us that the training on the job is the last thing that this country can afford at such critical times. By the time a minister gets to learn the ways around his job, the countdown for going home starts, to quote ‘Yes Minister.’

The PML-N needs to spell out, perhaps a white paper to be tabled in parliament, what they stand for not just in clichÈs, but in substance. Some issues are more critical than others. Economy is one area where the PML-N evokes some concern. The problem with Ishaq Dar being the in-charge of finance is the same that we have had with all the finance ministers since Mehbubul Haq. None of them was an economist. We have had too much and too many local and imported bankers and accountants. Experts agree that they may be good in the services sector, but may not understand the exigencies of a political economy where the gap between the rich and the poor has reached alarming levels. A balance between political needs and budget management is needed. The Punjab government may not be the model where the chief minister’s penchant for political ploys, given in the shape of massive subsidies first in the Ramadan package and then in Roti, has left its coffers empty. A wheat storage crisis is also believed to be at hand in the province of good governance. We need to have a larger economic model, a la Manmohan Singh, before we privatise or liberalise further.

Marathon discussions with economists reveal that there is no way we could get out of the economic morass without thinking radical. The PML-N needs to announce its policy on how they want to handle debt servicing and cut down the defence budget without compromising security. These two comprises, roughly 80 per cent of the budget, with another 10 per cent going as cost of the government, also requires reforms. Perhaps they need to consult the Army for revamping or trying new models. They will not be able to do that once they are in power and the time to do that may be now or never. This is what Shahbaz and Nisar should be talking to the chief in secret meetings and not making the commitments they cannot fulfil later. Perhaps, Nawaz Sharif should change his emissaries. This will be the sixth Army chief that they may estrange.

The policies over India, Afghanistan and particularly the US should also be more transparent. Some say that the public posturing is different from what is conveyed inside. Shahbaz Sharif seems to have this bias that Baboos and not politicians can deliver results. Nowhere in the world has development taken place without local bodies. The Musharraf model may be flawed but it could be improved by, among other things, direct elections of Nazims and mayors. No harm in sharing a little power, Mian Sahib. Perhaps a Saraiki province might change your image of just being Punjabis.

The whole package on Taliban eradication should be voiced loud and clear. They should propose solutions instead of being part of the problem by, for instance, allowing a banned outfit to hold a rally in the heart of Lahore.

Finally, the present state of the PML-N affairs does not promise a Camelot where Nawaz Sharif’s tiger will share the pond with other lambs. At the best, it will be a repeat of the earlier pattern where the messenger, who brings bad news like us, is blamed. We hope the series is received in positive spirit and the PML-N takes the lead with a bang. No Bholu Pehlwan tactics.

PS: The name of MNA Khawaja Saad Rafiq’s wife is Ghazala and not Asma, as published in the earlier report. Saad’s protest that his political struggle has been belittled by painting him as a Kashmiri, rewarded for his caste, stands registered.





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