The Ascent of Nawaz - Can he avoid a 'Khatarnak' Pakistan?

New Delhi, June 8 (ANI): In a country not really used to an orderly and smooth transfer of civilian political power, there was justifiable jubiliation in Pakistan when Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif, took oath as Prime Minister for a record third time on Wednesday, and thereafter, President Asif Ali Zardari also administered oath of office to a 25-member council of ministers in Islamabad on Friday.

This smooth transition from one civilian government to another, a first for Pakistan in its 66 year post-independence history, has seen 16 leaders taking oath as federal ministers and nine as ministers of state. A majority of the new ministers (23) are from Sharif's PML-N party, which swept the May 11 general elections. The remaining two are from the PML-F and National People's Party (NPP) respectively.

With the prescribed and pre-determined ceremonials out of the way, Sharif's baptism by fire, mostly coming from the religious right, has begun. Numerically, the far right, represented by groupings like the ASWJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi reborn and given electoral respectability) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, have not have broken any new ground in the National Assembly, except for Maulana Fazlur Rehman's JUI (F). Nevertheless, terrorist and sectarian killings and disappearances in Balochistan, Peshawar, Bannu, Kurram and Karachi continue. Stopping such killings and bringing peace to Balochistan, which had boycotted the elections, will be Nawaz's major challenges.

The most awkward event has been the drone attack that killed Taliban Deputy Chief Waliur Rehman Mehsud in Miramshah, North Waziristan on May 29. This was the first drone attack since the May 11 elections, and it came at a time when parties like the PTI and PML (N) were criticising drone attacks while negotiations were on with the TTP.

This week, a politically resurrected Sharif firmly called on the United States to stop the drone strikes on his country's soil.

"We respect the sovereignty of others, but others (Read U.S.) don't respect our sovereignty. These daily drone attacks must stop," Sharif said in his address to the 342-member National Assembly.

If Sharif's aides are to be believed, the PML-N leader is keen on building good relations with Washington based on mutual respect and interest.

The Taliban's reaction of calling off the talks was as anticipated and, in a country where conspiracy theories are a favoured pastime, some say this was the intention. The question is, who? And why?

It is possible the U.S. attack was routine, designed to avenge the 2009 TTP attack on a CIA base in Khost, killing seven. That attack was led by Waliur Rehman.

Further, the TTP is alleged to have trained Faizal Shehzad for the bombing attempt in New York in 2010, earning the TTP the designation of a foreign terrorist organisation and the label of an Al Qaeda associate.

The timing was not the best for Pakistan's politicians clamouring for a cessation of drone attacks, but the reasoning in Langley or Washington D.C., might have been that this is the opportunity when Waliur Rehman was sighted in North Waziristan, and that this should not be lost. Or, maybe, it was just another case of maladroitness. Surely, it could not be an American design to scuttle talks in the context of an earnest desire to leave Afghanistan. Then, were they set up for this by those wishing to scuttle talks and merely settle tribal scores?

In the complicated world of tribal politics mixed with religious zeal, there are several groups operating without any effective centralised control. It is still not confirmed that the old rivalry between Waliur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud, when both wanted to head the TTP following the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, had ever been finally resolved. There was a bounty on Waliur's head of Rs.50 million announced by the Pakistan Government. The U.S. had fixed a price of USD 5 million and listed him as a specially designated global terrorist. It is possible some one benefited from this killing.

The recent killing of the Taliban deputy chief will remain a subject of intense debate and speculation in Pakistan for quite a while. Despite the TTP having called off talks, politicians from the PML(N), PTI and JUI(F) hope that discussions will resume. This is despite the fact that the TTP have repeatedly declared that democracy is against Islam and that they do not believe in the Pakistan Constitution.

This political eagerness to negotiate despite this attitude of the TTP indicates an anxiety to appease under pressure. Major parties like the PML (N) and PTI had come to an electoral arrangement with various radical elements in the recent election campaign. Also, when the TTP started to eliminate and intimidate ANP election candidates, virtually annihilating it from KhyberPakhtunkhwa, and targeted the PPP and the MQM in Sindh and Karachi, the PTI and PML (N) kept quiet.

The right wing is now cashing its chips with Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, chief of the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania, Akora Khattak, and urging the Pakistan Army to support the dialogue. Earlier, both the PML(N) and PTI had approached the Maulana for his help in striking a deal with the Taliban.

Both the PTI and the JI have blamed the U.S. for the drone attacks and for the scuttling of talks, keeping their anti-U.S. rhetoric high. This attitude is not likely to solve Pakistan's present problems.

Nawaz has four main problems. Two of these, the economy and acute electricity crisis, are urgent and the survival of his government will largely depend on how these are solved. The third is rising sectarianism and violence, including nationalist violence in Balochistan which largely boycotted the recent election. This in turn is connected with the fourth issue - the rising graph of radicalisation. These are long term and the survival of Pakistan as a modern country will depend on how these issues are handled.

The by now familiar signpost towards radicalisation of society is when banned outfits like the Lashkar-e-Islam issue the usual fatwas in Bara in the Landi Kotal area. The latest, reasserts the need to pray five times daily, insists on keeping a beard and obligates men to wear a cap, and women to wear the burqa compulsorily.

These resemble edicts from various radical religious and radical organisations in Pakistan. Even the Council for Islamic Ideology, established in the 1960s to debate Islamic issues, is now controlled by radical elements with Maulana Sher Ahmed Sherani as its chairman.

In a recent exhibition of its obscurantism, the council declared that DNA tests were not admissible as primary evidence in rape cases and that the existing procedures as laid down in Islam were adequate. It also decreed that there was no need to change the blasphemy laws, arguing that any changes would make minorities unsafe in Pakistan. The threat is implicit.

Secularism is not irreligious nor anti-religion. But, in Pakistan, its religious leaders and politicians have made it to be anti-Islam. Criticism of Pakistan is considered to mean criticism of Islam and vice versa. Worse still, in Pakistan, you can today be a true Muslim or a Pakistani only if you are a Muslim of a particular sect decided by a few self-appointed religious leaders, very often backed by the gun. The anguish of many Pakistanis about the direction in which their leaders are taking their country is very obvious. One can see this very clearly in what they write or say, or as is now the vogue, in the social media. Can Nawaz reverse this trend to push the country back to medieval times and bring modernity and peace to his country? Maybe not in five years, but he can start.

It would make good sense for Nawaz to seek better economic and trade relations with India, but this is not likely to be acceptable to the radicals. The successful India -China trade model would probably not be lost on the business-minded Nawaz. It is for him to win his domestic constituency, including the army, and convince them that despite an all-weather friendship with China, there is need for Pakistan to evolve a better relationship with India. He also has to get the army on his side, especially with Afghanistan on everybody's mind currently. The Pakistan Army is today more concerned with preventing Afghanistan from slipping out of its clutches into the hands of the Indians.

Until then, we know that we are not going to get a Naya Pakistan of the Imran Khan type, might get a Roshan Pakistan of the Nawaz Sharif type, provided he can avoid a Khatarnak Pakistan.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Vikram Sood, Vice-President, Centre for International Relations, Observer Research Foundation (ANI)

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