Pakistan in a flux

Pakistan is in a political drift with the Sharifs, the country's most powerful family, seemingly fighting a losing legal battle against corruption charges. With a hostile judiciary and an unsympathetic army, the head of the family, Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, is bitterly and publicly complaining against rigged courts but to no avail. The judiciary, unconcerned with such criticism and clearly supported by the army, has rejected Nawaz's pleas, which would have led to a single case. Now, separate cases which would profile corruption allegations more thoroughly will proceed under the supervision of a Supreme Court judge.

Nawaz's hold over his party - Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) - continues. Following an amendment, Nawaz regained the presidentship of the party, which he was compelled to give up after he was dismissed from the prime minister's post on July 28. From being beside an ailing wife in London to nursing his power base in Punjab, Pakistan's most important province, Nawaz is working to hold on to his mass base. Nawaz's wife Kulsoom won the seat relinquished by him.

However, there are enemies within like former interior minister Chaudhari Nisar. But while they have been emboldened, they have not been able to dent the former prime minister's control over the party. Far more serious are cracks within the family. Shahbaz Sharif, the faithful younger brother and the powerful chief minister of Punjab, is unhappy with Nawaz's combative approach towards the army and the judiciary. Also, Shahbaz's son Hamza and Nawaz's daughter Maryam, her father's political heir, are competitors.

One of the army's principal grouses against Nawaz was his desire to gain a real, if not controlling, voice in the formulation and management of Pakistan's security and vital foreign policy issues. Except for brief periods, these have always been in the army's hands and it is simply not willing to allow political primacy in these areas of governance. The present prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, is Nawaz's nominee and politically dependent on him. But in the last four months, since he assumed office, Abbasi has avoided any confrontation with the army. He is following its brief at a time the country is under great pressure because of US President Donald Trump's Afghanistan and South Asia policy. Consequently, the army brotherhood is speaking well of him. Will this generate ambition, unlikely as it seems because of his political inconsequence?

National elections are due next year. The Supreme Court seems determined that the National Accountability Courts hearing the corruption cases gives decisions before that. The way decks are stacked against the family, there is a strong possibility that Nawaz and his children may find themselves in jail. Nawaz will be inclined to fight the electoral battle through proxies but will Shahbaz be willing to go it alone and take on the establishment or prefer to lie low?

Meanwhile, Imran Khan no longer inspires the hope he once did and he will have to make extraordinary efforts to establish his sway over Punjab. The Pakistan Peoples Party simply does not have the wherewithal to go beyond its strongholds in Sindh. In this mix, Pervez Musharraf obviously fancies his chances and seeks to forge an alliance of small parties and personally gather 'Mohajir' support. There is some speculation that he may have the army's support, but that is unlikely. The last thing that the army would want is an ex-chief as prime minister. Besides, Musharraf is a proclaimed offender in more than one criminal case.

If the political class is in a flux then the army is seeking to tackle the complexities arising out of Trump's Afghanistan and South Asia policy. Its initial defiance gave way to engaging the US and the Afghans to impress upon them its sincerity in wanting to contribute to peacemaking in the troubled country.

Its basic intention, however, is to retain its Taliban instrument and, even more, to ensure that India's role does not increase. Therefore, if Pakistan feigned indifference to Trump asking India to enhance its economic role in Afghanistan, it rejected outright any attempt to give India a political and security role in that country.

Cornered by US

In the months since the policy was announced on August 21, the Americans are making it plain that Pakistan must close Taliban safe havens and also stop the activities of foreign-oriented terrorist groups on their territory. There is no indication that Pakistan would give up on the Taliban. Thus, the Pakistan army is navigating its Afghan policy through hostile winds.

Amid political uncertainties and security challenges, Pakistan's traditional resolve to be negative to India at every turn continues unabated. It is not leading to any real fresh thinking of changing course on India. This despite the seven decades of evidence that Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its hostile approaches. Indeed, one of the reasons behind the army's difficulties with Nawaz lies in his desire to open up to India, commercially and economically, while continuing with Pakistan's position on Jammu & Kashmir. The army fears that the establishment of close economic and commercial ties with India may set in motion an integrative process that it may find difficult to control.

At this time, Pakistan's security and political classes are looking to China for providing them with some comfort. The massive investments that Beijing will make as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are a manifestation of its reliability. Shahbaz captured this sentiment in his article in a prominent Pakistani newspaper three weeks ago. The Belt and Road Initiative, and by extension CPEC, he wrote, was premised on fostering "shared prosperity and creating a community of shared interests."

There are some voices expressing doubts that CPEC will bring about crippling dependency on China but they are going unheeded. For now, there is slavish devotion being shown to China, its new helmsman Xi Jinping and the 19th Communist Party Congress, being hailed as an epoch-making event in world history.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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