The reluctant radical

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Both for his supporters and detractors, PML(N) chief Mian Nawaz Sharifs present politics are an enigma. On one side he has started espousing radical views, anathema to the rank and file of the party he heads. While on the other, he seems quite unsure of how to play his role as the leading opposition figure.

He has written to President Zardari to end corruption and cronyism, urging him to present a consensus accountability bill in the current session of the parliament. He has also demanded that senior management of all state owned corporations be replaced through a transparent recruitment process.

Earlier while touring Sindh, the first time since elections, the PML(N) supremo announced to shed the mantle of a friendly opposition. Despite blowing hot and cold, unlike the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan he stopped short of demanding mid-term elections. In sharp contrast to his younger brother Mian Shahbaz Sharif, he has avoided spewing fire and brimstone while criticising the government.

Comfortably ensconced in his sprawling Riawind estate and owing to his not-too-infrequent forays abroad, Nawaz Sharif is perceived by many as a part time politician. Not being a member of the parliament, he leaves the nitty gritty of day-to-day politics to his senior party leadership. This good cop, bad cop policy has its limitations, as at some stage on the urging of his party men the senior Sharif will have to come out of the closet and catch the bull by the horns.

For the time being, Mr. Sharif will like to portray himself as the philosopher-thinker, the great helmsman of the party. These days he is spending his abundant spare time working on a new social contract that he insists on calling the 25 years Charter for Pakistan.

The Charter is too radical by PML(N) standards, which is generally perceived as a pro establishment party. It would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago that Mr. Sharif would even agree to have a cup of tea with members of SAFMA (South Asia Free Media Association), which is largely comprised of liberal journalists of the country, some of whom were victimized or even jailed during his tenure as prime minister.

In the past fortnight, he has had three sessions with SAFMA. This signifies a welcome shift in Mr. Sharifs views about how Pakistan should be run. The other day, while feting a group of journalists belonging to SAFMA, he warned that if immediate corrective measures were not taken Pakistan was fast becoming a failing state.

Lamenting the fact that President Zardari spurned his gestures for co-operation, he stressed the urgent need for strengthening democratic institutions and asserting the cardinal principal of civilian control over the Armed Forces. He accused the ISI (without actually naming it) of interfering in politics to the extent that agencies had funded PML(N) opponents in at least two recent bye-elections.

The PML(N) supremo stressed peace with India and resolving bilateral disputes with it through negotiations. He went to the extent of saying that Pakistan should emulate Chinas example by freezing contentious issues and adopt economic driven policies. Sounding like a populist leader of the seventies he suggested putting the Kashmir dispute on the back burner, reducing defence expenditure and spending a greater part of the national budget for the welfare of the people.

Mian Nawaz Sharif ruled out the possibility of forming an alliance with any of the Muslim Leagues in the market. In this context, he especially singled out the Mutehedda Muslim League being spearheaded by the Pir of Pagara. He termed the moves to unite the Leagues as a conspiracy hatched by the agencies against the PML(N). Hence it is no surprise that Mir Zafarullah Jamali failed to convince Mr. Sharif to support his unity moves when he visited him on Thursday

Noble thoughts being expressed by Mr. Sharif are music to the ears of his audience. But can he walk the talk? Unless it is part of a grand strategy, there is a clear disconnect between him and his party stalwarts headed by Mian Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Nisar.

At an Allama Iqbal day function largely attended by his party men, the Punjab Chief Minister took pot shots at the President and declared that he was even willing to sacrifice his government in his fight against the corrupt PPP leadership. Mian Shahbaz Sharif notwithstanding his disdain for Ch. Pervez Elahi seems more akin to the idea of unifying the Leagues than his brother.

Contrary to claims that he does not care losing the chief ministership of Punjab for the sake of principles, he has developed a clear understanding with the so-called Forward-bloc of the PML(Q) in the Punjab Assembly. Calls for the PPP to exit the coalition in Punjab should be seen in this context.

The PPP, on the other hand, is also grinding its loins to take on the PML(N) in Punjab. Ch. Pervez Elahi and Mr. Babar Awan have already met to join hands in the Province against Shahbaz Sharif. Reportedly the PML(Q) wants its nominee as chief minister as a price for its support. It is unlikely that the PPP would agree to this.

Ch. Nisar has announced that the government will not be allowed to get the reformed general sales tax (RGST) passed from the National Assembly. This is despite knowing well that such an eventuality would deal a deathblow to the IMF programme for Pakistan.

This is hardly the principled politics that Mian Nawaz Sharif envisages in his Charter for Pakistan. Nor is it in consonance with the COD, which both parties had promised to adhere to while in exile. This is actually a recipe for disaster.

It will be grossly unfair to entirely blame the PML(N) for the impasse. It takes two to tango. However the moral high ground that Mian Nawaz Sharif is trying to assume puts greater responsibility on his shoulders to reign in his myopic hawks. The PML(N) chief wants the military and its agencies out of politics. But is he sure that the rest of the party is working for the same goal? Notwithstanding the PPPs disastrous policies bordering on a death wish, is Mr. Sharif merely playing politics like the rest?

The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.