The populist right in India, and the US

All eyes in India have understandably been on some important political developments over the past few days.

First, the by-election results of 3 parliamentary seats and 2 legislative seats were made more interesting by fact that BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, and India’s largest) had to face a surprising rout in the strongholds (Gorakhpur, Phulpur) of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister (Yogi Adityanath) and Deputy Chief Minister (Keshav Prasad Maurya).

Second, there has been talk of other regional parties joining hands and forming an Anti-Congress Front. Two days after the election results, the exit of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its decision to pass a no confidence motion (which BJP is likely to win) has certainly made the fight for 2019 more interesting.

While it remains to be seen whether the opposition parties in 2019 can give the BJP a run for its money, those interested in US politics will have closely followed the result of a Congressional by-election (18th District) where Democrat candidate Connor Lamb (a 33 year old Marine) defeated Republican Candidate Rick Saccone in a close contest. This is a significant win after the triumph of Senator Douglas Jones in Alabama. Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate Seat in Alabama (a Republican stronghold referred to as “Ruby Red”) since 1997.

The US President, who is quick to comment on virtually every issue, on Twitter, remained silent on the result of the 18th District.

The US President did state, at a private fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley, that the Democrat candidate’s stance on key economic issues was akin to that of Trump:

The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis, Trump said. He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican?’ He sounds like a Republican to me.

Lamb conservative on social and economic issues?

Trump’s views were echoed by a number of other Republicans. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Lamb a “pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative.”

While Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York said that he doesn’t “think you’ll see another candidate like Lamb,” another representative from the state of Pennsylvania, Mike Kelly, argued that Lamb was “more like a Republican.”

There is some truth in the President’s assertions, because Lamb did support the President’s imposition of tariffs on aluminium and steel imports. Said Lamb: “we have to take some action to level the playing field.” Even on issues like gun control and abortion, his views were to the right of conventional Democrats, though not absolutely in sync with the Republicans.

Why Trump can not ignore this defeat

Irrespective of what US President Donald Trump may say, the fact is that he had won the state by 20 points in the US Presidential election of 2016, and his economic agenda had found strong resonance. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had also campaigned for Saccone.

Significantly, in the last two Congressional elections, Democrats had not even bothered to field candidates in PA 18.

The announcement to impose tariffs on aluminium and steel had been made one week before the election, clearly with an eye on reaching out to large sections of ‘blue collar workers’. The US President calculated that he would be able to regain his popularity, but the results clearly show that Trump’s ‘ultra nationalism’ and economically inward looking policies by themselves will not suffice. He will also need to change his style of functioning and not continuously sack individuals.

Republican Speaker Paul Ryan himself had dubbed this verdict as a ‘wake up call’. Other Republicans have been forthright in their analysis of the defeat and blame Trump’s approval ratings for the same.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said:

There is a very real problem facing Republicans in the months ahead and that problem is Donald Trump’s approval rating.

What does Lamb’s win mean for the Democrats

Lamb’s victory may also result in some changes within the Democrats. Lamb has been pitching for a change in leadership and does not get along particularly well with Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives:

I have said, and I continue to say, that I think we need new leadership at the top of both parties in the House.

Pelosi however was quick to deny that Lamb’s criticism of her had anything to do with the outcome:

I don’t think that that really had that much impact on the race […] He won. If we hadn’t won, you might have a question, but we won — the ‘D’ next to his name was very significant.

The electoral verdicts in India and US have one common message: ‘economic insularity’,  and the whipping up of ultra-nationalist emotions can not make up for vacuous policies.

There are messages for the opposition in both the US and India; in spite of right wing nationalism having failed to address substantive issues, the voter is looking for new options — leaders with imaginative ideas outside of the cozy club .

If one were to specifically look at India, the fence sitters may not be particularly happy with the existing order, but does that imply that they will automatically tilt towards the opposition? The politics of doles and sops will not work. A progressive social agenda, which is in sync with the diverse ethos of this country, has to be complemented by a pro-reform economic agenda (which is of course inclusive, and sensitive to the concerns of the poorest).


What is clear however is that Trump’s re-election in 2020 and Modi’s in 2019, are not a done deal. One would have to say though, that in spite of the recent UP verdict, there is a higher probability of Modi being re-elected than Trump.

It remains to be seen whether the current populist right narrative, which is a lethal cocktail of inward looking economic thinking and conservative social policies, can be countered effectively, and defeated at the hustings, by a progressive, forward looking agenda. Will India and the US take the lead in challenging this narrative?


3 key problems with Trump’s style of functioning

The removal of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State (who was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA) reiterates three key problems in US President Donald Trump’s style of functioning: First, his inability to get along with members of his team; second, impulsive decisions driven excessively by ‘optics’ and personal chemistry between leaders; and, finally, his inability to work in a system even where it is necessary.

Tillerson, who had differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iran Nuclear Deal (which Trump has been wanting to scrap, though his stance was moderated by Tillerson) to the handling of North Korea, is not the first member (earlier senior individuals to be sacked are, amongst others, Michael Flynn, who was National Security Adviser, and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) to exit hurriedly. Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, quit recently after opposing the US President’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium.

The US President tweeted this decision:

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!

The US President admitted that Tillerson’s style of functioning was very different from his own (alluding to the latter’s more nuanced approach on complex issues).

Interestingly, the US President did not even consult any of his staff members, including Tillerson, before agreeing to engage with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un. The South Korean National Security Advisor, Chung Eui Yong, had met with Trump and put forward the North Korean dictator’s proposal of a Summit.

The US President agreed to this proposal. Commenting on his decision to engage with Kim Jong Un, Trump tweeted:

Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!

While Chung stated that the Summit would take place before May 2018, White House has not provided any specific dates.

There is absolutely no doubt that, at times, bold steps need to be taken to resolve complex issues like North Korea. Trump’s impulsive nature, however – refusing to go into the depth of things or seeking expert opinion – does not make for good diplomacy.

In fact, a number of politicians and journalist have expressed their skepticism with regard to where North Korean negotiations may ultimately lead. Ed Markey a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, stated that Trump “must abandon his penchant for unscripted remarks and bombastic rhetoric to avoid derailing this significant opportunity for progress.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lewis makes the point that there is a danger of Trump getting carried away by the attention he receives. Says Lewis in his column:

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

All Trump’s interlocutors have realized that while he is unpredictable, one thing which is consistent is the fact that he is prone to flattery. During his China visit, for instance, Trump was so taken aback by the welcome he received and the MOU’s signed with Chinese companies that he started criticizing his predecessors.

Finally, while Trump, like many global leaders, has risen as a consequence of being an outsider to the establishment, with people being disillusioned with the embedded establishment, the US President has still not realized that one of Washington’s biggest assets has been strategic alliances like NATO and multilateral trade agreements like NAFTA. The United States has also gained from globalization and strategic partnerships; it has not been one way traffic.

It remains to be seen how Tillerson’s removal will affect relations with key US allies. If Trump actually goes ahead with scrapping the Iran nuclear deal (2015), it will send a negative message not just to other members of the P5 grouping, but also India. In the last three years, India has sought to strengthen economic ties with Iran and has invested in the Chabahar Port Project. New Delhi is looking at Iran as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia. If Tillerson’s successor just plays ball, and does not temper the US President’s style of conducting foreign policy, there is likely to be no stability and consistency and even allies would be skeptical.

Japan on its part would want its concerns regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents, decades ago, to not get sidelined in negotiations with North Korea. (13 Japanese individuals were abducted in 2002, 5 have returned but the fate of the others remains unknown.) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the return of the abductees a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and his low approval ratings due to a domestic scandal could use the boost that is usually associated with the plight of those abductees.

The removal of Tillerson underscores problems with Trump’s style of functioning as discussed earlier. The outside world has gotten used to the US President’s style of functioning and will closely be watching what Tillerson’s successor brings to the table.

Trump’s humor is not very funny to the world’s liberal democracies

The Chinese Communist Party, on February 25, 2018, made a significant announcement — that the two-term limit for Presidency will be abolished through an amendment to the constitution. This means that current President Xi Jinping will be President for life. This amendment was tabled on March 6, 2018 by the Communist Party during the two week National People’s Congress (which began on Monday, March 5, 2018).

According to a CNN recording, Donald Trump, while reacting to this development, stated:

He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.

The US President also called Xi a “gentleman,” and said that the latter had treated Trump very well during his China visit in November 2017. Trump’s reaction to Xi’s decision has been criticized by some politicians in the US, while other major Western democracies have not commented on the decision.

Trump’s inconsistency on China

Trump’s views with regard to China have not been consistent, as is the case on many other issues. Candidate Trump had used tough language for China; at one campaign rally, for example, candidate Trump stated:

We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.

During his visit to China in November 2017, the US President had, interestingly enough, criticized his predecessors, and said that he does not hold China responsible for the skewed trade relationship:

[…] I don’t blame China. After all, who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its own citizens? I give China great credit […] I do blame past [US] administrations for allowing this out of control trade deficit to take place and to grow. We have to fix this because it just doesn’t work […] it is just not sustainable.

While the US President is unpredictable, the criticism of his predecessors on foreign soil came as a shock to everyone.

Trump’s myopic approach towards complex economic and strategic issues has helped China

Trump’s recent praise of the constitutional change which will enable Xi to be President for life may have embarrassed many Americans and Liberals in other parts of the world. They would have perhaps expected the US President to raise a red flag.

The fact is, however, that many of Trump’s foreign policy decisions – withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in January 2017, or repeatedly criticizing NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and stating that members are not meeting their ‘financial obligations’ or, more recently, the imposition of tariffs on imports of aluminium and steel – are embarrassing steadfast allies in Asia and Western Europe. All these decisions have sent a message globally that Trump’s view of the outside world is driven by domestic politics and transactionalism – and not realism as some would have us believe. This is in contrast to his predecessors, who valued relationships but also understood the relevance of common democratic values as a binding thread. Trump on the other hand is quite comfortable with authoritarian leaders.

Trump has often expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin, and Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte, who is controversial for using extrajudicial methods to deal with a Filipino drug problem, has presided over a drug war that has cost the lives of more than 4,000 people. While praising Duterte, Trump said:

I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing.

During their meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Manila (November 2017), Trump did not sufficiently raise US human rights concerns, and was criticized by many American politicians, including Republican Senator John McCain. The US-Philippines Joint Statement, while speaking about the challenge of the drug problem, did refer to a human rights issue (issued after the meeting between Trump and Duterte):

The two sides underscored that human rights and the dignity of human life are essential, and agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda in their national programs to promote the welfare of all sectors, including the
most vulnerable groups.

It would be pertinent to point out that the previous administration had criticized Duterte for adopting such measures. In return, Duterte used offensive language aimed at President Obama.

While the US has been in bed with authoritarian regimes in the past and turned a blind eye on many occasions to human rights violations, no one can deny the fact that even transactionalist Presidents like Ronald Reagan paid lip service to democracy and human rights. In a speech at Westminster, Reagan stated:

Democracy is not a fragile flower […] Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.

Similarly, George W Bush, who was often thought of as being very simplistic, spoke about the importance of democratic values as a common binding factor with many of its allies.


In conclusion, while reasonable ties between Washington and Beijing are good news, Trump’s public appreciation of authoritarian leaders and their methods is worrying because at the global level there is a feeling that authoritarian leaders and systems deliver better results compared to chaotic democracies.

The US has always been the flagbearer of democracy, liberal values, and human rights. It is a matter of concern, then, when the leader of such a country pays little attention to these issues. In a way, Trump has played a pivotal role in wrecking the liberal order, and by doing so has created a situation where Beijing will not have to change its ways, but may well create a parallel order which many countries will be willing to join due to China’s economic prowess.

Quad: The way ahead and the key challenges

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the US has been pitching in favor of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’ ever since the first meeting between representatives of member states in November 2017.

Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan, actually proposed this arrangement about a decade ago. Diplomatic engagement began, and joint military exercises were even held, but a change in guard in Australia, as well as Chinese complaints to member states, resulted in the end of the arrangement. Given the increasing focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region and the strengthening of strategic ties between all four countries, reticence was finally shed and representatives of the four countries met in November 2017, on the eve of the East Asia Summit in Manila. The main aim of the alliance, thus in other ways, has been to check China’s assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea, and democracy has been one of the key binding factors between the Quad. The U.S. State Department, after the meeting in November 2017, issued a statement that the United States is “committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

More recently, the joint statement issued after the meeting between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February 2018, reiterated the point about a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Said the joint statement between both countries: Continue reading

Is Trump turning the US into the Biggest Loser?

US President Donald Trump has been quick to change his stance on complex issues like US relations with other countries, including China. Trump has also been unpredictable in his approach towards important multilateral organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US ties with important allies in the Indo-Pacific, especially Japan and South Korea.

The most recent instance of Trump yet again changing his views was his statement on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) during the Davos Summit, saying that the US was open to a rethink, provided the provisions were fair. While the US pulled out of the TPP agreement much to the chagrin of other signatories, eleven countries (they are, in alphabetical order, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) have agreed on signing the deal in March in Chile.

While speaking at Davos, Trump said that the US was not averse to negotiating trade deals with its TPP partners. In an interview with CNBC, on the eve of his address, the US President had said:

….we would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal. The deal was terrible, the way it was structured was terrible. If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.

The US President sensed the pitch at Davos, which was firmly in favor of globalization and a more open economic world order. During his address, while speaking of American interests, Trump made it a point to state that watching out for US interests did not imply that his administration would prefer America to become more insular. Said the US President:

America First does not mean America alone. When the United States grows, so does the world. American prosperity has created countless jobs all around the globe and the drive for excellence, creativity, and innovation in the US has led to important discoveries that help people everywhere live more prosperous and far healthier lives.

Mr Trump is not the only world leader to have won competitive elections by appealing to insularity, only to realize that economic interdependence between countries today is incredibly entrenched. For instance, Indian PM Narendra Modi, while arguing in favour of globalization, had said:

Instead of globalization, the power of protectionism is putting its head up.

Modi had gone to the extent of saying that inward looking tendencies were an important challenge, arguing that:

 …such tendencies can’t be considered lesser risk than terrorism or climate change.

Interestingly, Modi’s remarks on globalisation were welcomed by the Chinese, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, arguing in favour of China and India working together to promote globalisation. Said Hua:

China would like to enhance coordination and cooperation with all countries including India to steer the economic globalisation towards benefiting world economic growth and well-being of all countries.

Last year in his address at the Davos Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping had spoken in favour of globalization, saying:

Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room […] Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so is light and air.

While some flexibility is welcome, excessive unpredictability and Trump’s woolly approach on serious issues is confusing the outside world. A business-like approach is good to an extent, but to deal with complex geostrategic issues purely from the prism of US short-term financial interests as opposed to long term geopolitical interests is a disastrous idea.

Every country has to watch its own interests, and the US is no exception, and there is absolutely no doubt that domestic public opinion cannot be ignored. Yet if the US wants to be a leader, it cannot be as transactional as Trump. US dreams of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” – a key aim of the US Defense Strategy – will remain a mere dream if the US sends confusing signals to its allies in the region and is not willing to take a clear leadership role. While the Strategy identifies China as a threat, Trump’s continuous somersaults on relations with US allies are only emboldening Beijing.

While it is unfair to single out Trump for being insular he has been the mascot for inward looking protectionist economic policies and an anti-immigration sentiment. While the US President did tell the global audience at Davos that “America First does not mean America alone,” it will indeed end up alone if he does not start thinking like a US President.

Currently he is thinking purely like the head of a company, and running a business is different from running a country, which has long sought to be the flag bearer of democratic, liberal values and globalization. While Trump’s isolationism and short sightedness may cause some discomfort for other countries, and groupings like the TPP, the latter will find other alternatives as has been the case with the signatories of the TPP, and America will be the bigger loser.

In foreign affairs, don’t ignore “soft power”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his 6 day visit to India (January 14-19, 2018), made some interesting points. While arguing in favor of the advantages of hard power over soft power, Netanyahu stated:

I like soft power, but hard power is usually better. You need F-35s (fighter jets), cyber, a lot of intelligence… Where does the power for hard power come from? It comes from economic power.

Interestingly, India in recent years, under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been focusing on promoting its Soft Power through a number of ways such as popularizing Yoga (The United Nations declared June 21st as International Yoga Day), Ayurveda, reaching out to its Diaspora, and rekindling Buddhist linkages with neighbours in South Asia as well as South East Asian and East Asian countries including China.

Modi has reiterated the relevance of “soft power” on more than one occasion. Even in the context of India-Israel relations, soft power has played a key role. There have been efforts toward renovating historical sites of Jews in India, and there has been an outreach towards Jews of Indian origin now settled in Israel. There have been efforts to strengthen educational linkages between both countries. During the visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in November 2016, MOU’s were signed between the Hafia University of Israel and the Welingkar Institute of Management (WeSchool), and IDC Herzliya, Israel with the SP Jain School of High Technology. The joint statement issued during Netanyahu’s visit to India also made references to the importance of people-to-people linkages, the opening of an Indian cultural centre in Israel in 2018, and an MOU in film co-production.

The point made by Netanyahu has been made by a number of realists. Joseph Nye, who first put forward the concept of “soft power” as being the ability to influence outcomes without the use of force, later on argued in favour of the right blend of “hard power” and “soft power,” dubbing it as “smart power”. Along with Richard Armitage, Nye even set up a Commission on Smart Power. The concept was of course popularized by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at the confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, stated:

We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.

While there is absolutely no doubt that economic and hard power does give an impetus to soft power, it is also a bit of a stretch to totally dismiss “soft power.” Many would argue for instance that apart from geopolitical factors, soft power did give an edge to the US over the USSR, and later on over China, for a very long time. In recent years, China has been trying to focus on “soft power,” so much so that in the past decade, a large number of Confucius Institutes have come up in different parts of the world (over 500 in around 140 countries) including roughly 100 in the US. Apart from this, China has been trying to attract foreign students, and also tourists from across the world. Even its ambitious connectivity project, One Belt One Road, which has clear economic motives, is being packaged as part of its “soft power.”

In conclusion, “soft power” cannot be a determining factor, but it does play a significant role in strengthening bilateral relations, as well as building a positive image for countries. While we live in an age where being transactional is confused with being a pragmatist/realist. US President Trump too has been dismissive of “soft power,” and by his insular approach towards immigration, and indifference towards democratic values he has given up on two of the essential components of American Soft Power. Dismissing “soft power” because it does not help in achieving any tangible outcomes is one of the shortcomings of such transactionalism, and is an excessively simplistic view of a very complex debate.

Pakistan’s long struggle for democracy could get a boost from Trump, Rand Paul, and …the Saudis

In recent days, all eyes have been on President Trump’s January 1 tweet, which sent out an unequivocal message that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan unless the latter takes concrete action against terror groups like the Haqqani Network.  Said Trump in his tweet:

The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!

Trump’s tweet was followed by the US decision to withhold Foreign Military Fund (FMF) aid (worth 255 million USD) due to Pakistan’s inaction against terror groups. The Department of Defense has also suspended Coalition Support Fund (CSF) money to Pakistan (worth 900 million USD). In all, over 1.1 Billion USD has been suspended. Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul will be introducing a bill for ending all US aid to Pakistan. Said Paul:

I’ve been fighting to end Pakistani aid for years. But now we have a breakthrough. President Trump has publicly called to end their aid, and is currently holding up over $200 million of it. I want to end all of it.

The Kentucky senator has argued that the money provided to Pakistan can be used for building infrastructure in the US.

Reactions in Pakistan to Trump’s tweets were predictable. While some opposition parties said that US President’s assertive attitude vis-à-vis Pakistan is a failure of the present Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)-led government to put forward Pakistan’s view point effectively, the PML-N government criticized the US President’s remarks and said that it was ready to provide audits, and that it has been on the front line in the war against terror. Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif, in response to Trump’s tweets stated:

Pakistan is ready to publicly provide every detail of the US aid that it has received over the last 15 years.

In the midst of all this, a number of noteworthy developments have taken place.

First, both Nawaz Sharif, President of Pakistan Muslim League and former PM, and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab province and PML-N’s PM candidate, met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the night of January 1, 2018. There were speculations of various kinds with regard to the meeting. The first was that an agreement was being worked out where Nawaz Sharif would be exiled to Saudi Arabia in order to avoid the corruption cases filed against him in Pakistan. This, however, was flatly denied by his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif. A spokesman for the former PM also issued a strong denial in a press release. Said the spokesman:

He has always utilised these relations for national interest and never for his personal benefits.

The other major speculation was that the Sharifs met with the Saudi Crown Prince in light of the recent statements made by President Donald Trump, and had gone as a result of an understanding with the Pakistan army. Irrespective of whatever the reality was, it clearly shows that the Sharifs are still extremely relevant, not just because of their political influence in the province of Punjab, but also their strong networks in Saudi Arabia.

Second, Nawaz Sharif, who has – in spite of considerable domestic constraints – made concerted efforts at improving ties with India, had according to some news stories met with Pakistan National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua on December 28th, at the former’s Raiwind residence in Lahore. During this meeting, Sharif spoke about the need for mending fences with neighboring countries. The meeting was however dismissed as a false report.

Third, most interestingly the former PM, while reacting to Donald Trump’s attack on Pakistan as regrettable, launched an all out attack on the army and dictatorships in a speech on January 3, 2018. While he blamed Pervez Musharraf for capitulating to the US in 2002, the former PM also accused the army of propping up leaders through secret deals. He was alluding to the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-E-insaaf (PTI) Imran Khan. Sharif also called for self introspection, and that it was time for Pakistanis to “ask ourselves why the world does not take us seriously.”

A few points need to be kept in mind:

First, Nawaz Sharif – who has been written off – remains the tallest and most mature political leader who realises the importance of strong ties with neighbors, and realizes the pitfalls of excessive dependence upon one country. During his speech on January 3, 2018 he categorically stated:

I would like to advise Prime Minister Abbasi to develop a policy that ensures we don’t need US aid so that our image is not attacked in this manner.

Second, Sharif’s aggressive approach towards the army may not be appreciated by many in, or outside of, Pakistan. The Saudi Prince is supposed to have put forward his discomfort with Nawaz’s approach towards the army, saying it will destabilise Pakistan. Nawaz is not likely to cave in easily, and is likely to use every opportunity to attack the army, and will make attempts to restore civilian supremacy. This is clearly evident from his speech on January 3, 2018.

Third, post the 2018 Parliamentary elections which PML-N is likely to win, efforts will be made to reach out to India, since a better economic relationship with India will fit in with the overall goal of Pakistan becoming more self-reliant. PML-N would also like to send a clear message to Pakistan’s army about who the real boss is. The Pakistani army will off course continue to sabotage such efforts, but Nawaz Sharif seems determined to make one last ditch effort. This will off course require PML-N to take decisive action against terror groups targeting India.

External forces should stop treating the Pakistani army with kid gloves. While the US has taken the lead in taking a strong stand against the Pakistani army, China too needs to do a rethink of its short term goal of using Pakistan to contain India. Terrorism and instability will have an impact on China in the near run as well as long run. The outside world, while being firm with the Pakistani army, should continue to make efforts aimed at strengthening democratic forces within Pakistan.