Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister came to an expected if abrupt turn over the weekend. Getting ready to wear the crown: Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif—a man with a colourful if lesser-known past. And Allah and the Army willing, he will hold on to the throne—and not just in the interim. So who is this Wazir-e-Azam and why does India have a more upbeat view of him?
Editor’s note: We have done two other Big Stories on Pakistan. The first charts the rise and fall of Imran Khan—placing it in historical context. The second is on Khan’s wild allegations of a ‘foreign conspiracy’—and whether his fall from favour reflects a shift in the Pakistani military’s view of the US and India.
Here’s a quick recap of this political soap opera:
High drama moment: According to BBC Urdu (via Business Standard), as a desperate last resort, Khan tried to sack Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa—but the Defence Ministry refused to notify his orders. Instead, he received a late night visit from two “uninvited guests”—whom BBC doesn’t name but implies that they were Bajwa and ISI chief Nadeem Ahmed Anjum. The Supreme Court too opened its doors at night to ensure Khan didn’t try any other last-minute manoeuvres.
Quote to note: Pakistan’s daily Dawn newspaper celebrated Khan’s defeat as a victory for the democratic process:
"It could not have come sooner. Prime Minister Imran Khan's stubborn insistence on not letting his opponents have the satisfaction of voting him out had rendered Pakistan's entire democracy a farce. It will be worth remembering that this was a choice, not a compulsion."
Brace for elections: The National Assembly will vote for a caretaker PM until August when its five-year term runs out—and elections will be held within 60 days. Of course, the interim PM can also choose to call for immediate elections—though it seems unlikely.
"His approach will definitely be scorched earth, with everybody being traitors. You are going to have extreme polarisation and it's a recipe for whoever loses not to accept the elections even if a new government comes in, it's quite problematic."
As for the Opposition: They have won this battle but the road ahead remains perilous. The interim PM of choice—Shehbaz Sharif—inherits all the problems Khan has either created or made worse during his tenure—soaring inflation, political unrest, public anger and a foreign policy mess. The last thanks to Khan’s unabashed embrace of Russia—which has distanced Islamabad entirely from Washington. And there have been significant rifts between the various opposition leaders in the past year—which may reappear now that power is at hand. Those with their own PM ambitions—e.g. the Bhutto family and its scion Bilawal—could pull the rug at any moment.
And there’s always Khan: As some experts note, it is way too early to count Khan out:
“I don’t think that Imran is out of Pakistan’s politics. He’s already in a better position, he’s completely distracted attention from inflation, from the economy, to this question of foreign conspiracy, and it’s benefiting him.”
The basic bio: is as follows:
Shehbaz’s personal life: is every bit as colourful as that of Imran Khan’s—and he is as well known within Pakistan for his multiple marriages. He has been married three times. He is currently separated from his second wife Aaliya, and first wife Nusrat remains in the background. The talk of the town is the third spouse—feminist and socialite Tehmina Durrani—who is best known for authoring an account of her violent first marriage to another politician.
As France24 notes, “Sharif remains popular despite lurid tabloid headlines about multiple marriages and a property portfolio that includes luxury apartments in London and Dubai.” Among those headlines: Stories about a flyover known as the “Honey Bridge”—constructed to shorten his daily journey to Durrani’s home.
Shehbaz’s biggest advantage: In Pakistan, politicians propose and the generals dispose. Khan would not have been kicked out—or Sharif chosen as the Opposition’s main man—without the military’s blessings. And that’s because Sharif has long had a cordial relationship with the Army—playing ‘good cop’ to his brother’s ‘bad cop.’ And it makes sense that “the establishment” would consider him a “safe bet” now that they’ve washed their hands of Khan.
Shehbaz’s biggest strength: is his well-established reputation as an excellent administrator during his stints as Punjab CM:
“During his three stints as chief minister of Punjab, he was known for his hands-on style, marked by surprise visits to schools and hospitals, early morning staff meetings and late night social media messages to his officers.”
Bloomberg News’ 2017 profile of Sharif paints him as a driven, often dictatorial leader who sleeps only 4 hours a night—and “can bulldoze through Pakistan’s usually ponderous bureaucracy and complete infrastructure projects in record time.”
Point to note: Sharif is not quite as sensible as painted—when it suits his political needs. He recently claimed that tons of meat is being burnt in Imran Khan's house to perform witchcraft—a dig at Khan’s wife Bushra Bibi.
Shehbaz’s potential headache: While Sharif is know to be extremely loyal to elder brother Nawaz—who is currently in exile in London—there are rumours of a rift between the brothers over which of their children—Nawaz’s daughter Maryam or Shehbaz's son Hamza—should be the Punjab CM candidate. But others dismiss such speculation:
“Shehbaz was offered the prime ministership on a couple of occasions in the past, in the 1990s, as well as in this year, when there were problems between Nawaz and the military establishment, but he declined, because, for him loyalty to his brother is a paramount trait.”
New Delhi’s view of Shehbaz: Sharif is also known to advocate a softer approach toward New Delhi. He helped Nawaz open back channel talks with India using his business connections with Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal. And he persuaded the military to okay Nawaz’s plan to attend the swearing-in ceremony for PM Modi in 2014. According to one Indian analyst:
“Compared with many other Pakistani politicians, Shehbaz enjoys better ties with India, at least with certain industrialists. He has visited India a few times. His foreign policy, like his domestic policy, is expected to be marked by pragmatism.”
FYI, according to Indian Express, “government sources” are already talking of a “diplomatic opening”—but warned “while the broad signs are positive, the relationship with Pakistan is very unpredictable.”
OTOH: Sharif is also known for his warm ties with Beijing:
“According to local media, the outgoing Chinese consul general wrote to Shehbaz last year praising his ‘Punjab Speed’ execution of projects under the huge China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative. The diplomat also said Shehbaz and his party would be friends of China in government or in opposition.”
The bottomline: Khan is now engaged in a risky game of brinkmanship that pits him not just against the Opposition—but also the military. The stakes will only get higher as the elections near. Given his antics, New Delhi too is eyeing the more pragmatic Sharif sibling with hope. Contrary to what some believe, chaos on the border is never good news for India.
Al Jazeera offers a comprehensive overview. The Hindu and The Week have the best profiles on Shehbaz Sharif. This older Bloomberg News story highlights his track record as an administrator. Economist highlights the corruption charges against the Sharif brothers. Agence France Presse via NDTV lays out the many challenges facing him. Indian Express reports on why New Delhi is more upbeat about Sharif. Also read: Our Big Stories on why Imran Khan fell from military grace and the backstory behind his foreign conspiracy allegations.
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