The fledgling democratic process in Pakistan has churned out a leader, who now has the rare opportunity to chart a new positive and peaceful course, not only for his own country but for the whole South Asia region, and leave a legacy that, so far, no other Pakistani leader has.
Nawaz Sharif must use the proverbial ‘third chance’ – he was prime minister twice before but never completed his full term – to break the vicious cycle of revenge in domestic politics and the unnecessary cycle of rivalry with India in its regional politics. It will not be easy and will be full of challenges, but eventually it will make him rise as a great Pakistani leader who genuinely wants to bring peace and prosperity to his country and the whole region, perhaps more than even Indian leaders.
He should shun the well travelled Pakistani road of taking revenge in politics, known as ‘siaasat’ (in Urdu) and take a high road as far as his ouster from power in 1999 by then military chief Pervez Musharraf is concerned. He might be tempted to settle that issue in Pakistan’s traditional way of taking revenge, but how Sharif deals with his old foe will be a measure of the change he claims to represent.
Sharif must realise that the country’s democratic institutions, such as judiciary and free press, have matured over the past five years and that is evident from the fact that Musharraf is in jail for his actions. There is hope because, until now, the idea of a mere judge ordering a former army chief into confinement was unthinkable. He must also realise that changing the civil-military balance in favour of the civilians would be ideal, but if it is done without cautious planning, it could jeopardise the democratic gains of the last several years.
Sharif should also try to bring, as he already said, every other party to the table and work together for improving the plight of the average Pakistani. It is up to him to bring the country out of the abysmal chasm of hopelessness and despair. His victory being based on his party’s popularity in the Punjab province, Sharif now will also have to reach out to the leaders of other provinces.
Sharif must now also deal very cautiously with President Asif Ali Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, both of whom will be out of their offices by the end of this year, giving him a chance to appoint his supporters.
About improving relations with India, he has already indicated during his interviews that the two sides must restart back channel diplomacy to resolve problems while sticking to the stated positions in public. Sharif has publicly stated his intention to pick up the threads of the peace process he initiated with Indian leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. That process was undermined by the Kargil war. According to one senior official of the PPP, Sharif will have a tough time changing Pakistan’s posture towards India and Afghanistan. It is something that the establishment did not allow even the PPP-led coalition to pursue.
But if there is any issue on which bitter political rivals agree, it is on improving trade relations with India in view of its fast growing economy and the burgeoning market. Sharif, in fact, has always been supportive of granting India most-favoured-nation (MFN) status. His comfortable position in parliament should allow his party to push forth with this agenda. But it will not be easy because of the forces within Pakistan that have always succeeded in ratcheting up the anti-India rhetoric when it suits them.
So the new leader should make the issue of improving trade relations with India a part of a bigger plan, a plan to develop a flourishing ‘transit economy’ for the country.
He must revisit the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement 2010 to allow India to send goods to Afghanistan and beyond through Pakistan. He must convince his rivals that the country can really have a flourishing transit economy because it provides the shortest land routes from Western China to the Arabian Sea, through the Gwadar Port, while linking India with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics and providing land route from Iran to India.
The transit economy idea can be crucial for Nawaz Sharif because he might have to find new ways to compensate for the US aid worth millions of dollars that might stop because of his objections to the country`s support to the US war on terror. However, the view in the power corridors of Washington is that since his priorities are really economic, he will not upset the apple cart and will have enough reasons and incentive to keep the one billion dollars a year aid from the US flowing into Pakistan.
(13-05-2013-Ravi M. Khanna is a longtime observer of the South Asia scene and has covered the region for Voice of America as the New Delhi Bureau Chief and also as the South Asia Desk Editor in Washington from 1980 to 2011. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)