For a province that has for so long been used to strong leadership, the Covid-19 pandemic and the looming threat of a climate crisis has exposed the presence of a void in Punjab: a void once filled by Shehbaz Sharif. When floods swept through Lahore, was anyone surprised to see young social media users observing the absence of the former chief minister in Lahore’s streets – always on the front-lines whenever disaster management was the need of the hour? Even though as the chief minister of the province, Shehbaz Sharif had an entire arsenal of bureaucrats and professionals that could have overseen relief efforts in his stead, he made the decision to put himself at the scene. He made the choice to plod through the water-clogged roads, to identify risk-areas, to be where the people needed him to be.
And his response to the rains was not at all unique as an event during his time as the head of the provincial government. While the Punjab government’s leadership today has chosen to be largely absent as the Covid-19 pandemic has raged through the province, can anyone forget how Shehbaz Sharif’s zeal guaranteed that the dengue epidemic would plague the province no more? Monsoons still overwhelm this region, bringing with them puddles ripe for mosquito larvae to multiply, yet Punjab has never again seen the horrors of dengue repeat themselves. So impactful was the effect of Shehbaz Sharif that even as governments have changed, the same routine procedures developed under his governance have continued to be implemented. Yet this government has found it difficult to even manage to effectively implement its own standards of procedure to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.
Shehbaz Sharif has always maintained an integrity of character and governance that has impressed many beyond the people that have repeatedly voted for him over the years. Owen Bennett-Jones, a long-time British correspondent in Pakistan, writes of Shehbaz Sharif in his book, Eye of the Storm, as a pragmatic politician, suave and effective, not just with handling local politicians but also foreign dignitaries. No wonder that Punjab alone saw such a huge volume of investment from both Chinese and Turkish sources that had never before trickled into the province, especially to the extent that they did in the years of PML-N governance. Just a decade ago, the politicians of Turkey were unknown to most Pakistanis, but now, through the efforts of the PML-N government that gave a
safe and a trustworthy business environment to Turkish investors, the names of Turkish cities and Turkish leaders like that of President Erdogan are known by even the least politically astute people. It’s no exaggeration to say Turkish and Chinese presence has increased to a magnitude that we still cannot ascertain. An extraordinary indication of just how much Shehbaz Sharif revolutionized our relations with brotherly Muslim nations like Turkey reflects in how President Erdogan referred to Shehbaz Sharif as his “brother” – commending him for his efforts in bringing Pakistan and Turkey closer as nations. In diplomatic overtures, it is rare for the head of a state to so directly endorse the efforts of a provincial executive, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan deemed Shehbaz
Sharif fit for such high praise.
Today, charges are brought forth against Shehbaz Sharif, implying – and sometimes directly stating – that these acts of public service came at a dire cost for the public exchequer. That Shehbaz Sharif, whenever he has brought in investment from China or Turkey in Punjab, has taken the least economical choice, deciding for the Pakistani people options that were more expensive for the economy than they needed to be. In other words, they have accused Shehbaz Sharif of mishandling public expenditure.
Let us, for the moment, put aside the fact that even the corruption perception index of Transparency International observes a sharp increase in fears that economic practice in Pakistan is rife with corruption ever since the PTI government has taken power. Let us also put aside the fact that on the Human Development Index, Punjab has seen the most rapid rise in scores of education, health, and income level, out of all of Pakistan’s provinces. And of course, let us also ignore the fact that in spite of the commitments that wealthy ministers and officials in the PTI government would not avail their entitlements, it is Shehbaz Sharif that, as a matter of fact, availed neither his salary, nor used public expenses to finance his foreign travels as a statesman. As also acknowledged by PTI parliamentarians, from 2013-2018, Shehbaz Sharif used his own resources to finance himself in his activities as the chief minister, including when he travelled to countries like China and Turkey.
As a statesman, and in spite of the PML-N’s reputation as a business-friendly party, Shehbaz Sharif did not bow down to pressure by lobby groups insisting on subsidies or resistant to tariffs when it did not suit the country. In 2017, when sugar mills sought a subsidy for exports on sugar, Shehbaz Sharif refused – even when the Sindh government began to provide an additional subsidy on sugar beyond that provided by the federal government. In the larger public interest, Shehbaz Sharif did not pursue this as policy, even as his own son operated a sugar mill of his own. In fact, a tax was introduced instead on the production of ethanol, a by-product of sugar and usually extracted through distilleries at sugar mills. The tax was unpopular among sugar mill-owners, but Shehbaz Sharif did not budge upon his decision.
Accusations are easy to make, but it is worth comparing projects in Punjab to projects elsewhere in the country to appreciate the cost-saving that defines Shehbaz Sharif’s acumen as a politician and leader. The Islamabad Safe City project, installed in 2011 by the then Pakistan People’s Party government, with only 2000 surveillance cameras in the city, cost the government Rs. 15 billion. The Lahore Safe City project, achieved in 2016 by the Shehbaz Sharif government, cost Rs. 12 billion, with 8000 surveillance cameras installed in the city. The sheer difference in scale is astounding, and the fact that the Lahore Safe City project still managed to cost less speaks volumes for just how invested Shehbaz Sharif was in securing the best for the people.
And this is not all that Shehbaz Sharif achieved. While transport infrastructure like the Orange Train and the highly affordable mass transport system observed in the Metro Bus seem to attract the attention of our detractors much more (even as they help millions in their daily lives) it’s important to emphasize the very specific energy infrastructure that Shehbaz Sharif has allowed this province to benefit from. Those long hours of loadshedding are in the past for scores of people – and for a reason. The Sahiwal Coal Power Project, completed in record time seven months ahead of a deadline, added 1320 megawatts of electricity to the national grid. Not only this, but in light of research into the benefits of investing in green technologies, the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Project diversified
2016. A Women Development department was introduced in the Punjab Secretariat, showing how the PML-N government recognized the need to especially alleviate and address the sufferings unique to women as a group in society. Female bureaucrats, female police officials, and female statesmen rose to the public eye in a conservative society as a result of these conducive policies.
These are just some facts in a very long list that discredit propaganda that has been unleashed to justify the incompetencies of our current government. To individually target each accusation is a feature-length piece on its own. Yet, be it in his safari suit combating dengue or floods, resisting powerful lobbies demanding subsidies and the removal of taxes, fervently pursuing economical deals and investments, or raising his voice and introducing legislation for the under-privileged, Shehbaz Sharif has proven his scrupulousness as a statesman again and again. Try as they might, they cannot change this fact.the energy economy of Pakistan as one of the most ambitious projects in eco-friendly energy ever undertaken in the country. Decreasing loadshedding was a commitment Shehbaz Sharif gave, and a commitment that he followed through on.
Finally, in lieu of recent police and government mishandling of a horrifying incident, it is worth noting just how much both space for women and their protection was expanded under Shehbaz Sharif. The “Women on Wheels” campaign was started under his government to encourage the public visibility of women and to also facilitate their presence on roads as cyclists and bikers. Police action was, for the first time, actively pursued against marriage halls, parents, and clerics that were involved in marrying off under-age girls. Domestic violence shelters were opened throughout the province, and a bill introduced to criminalize domestic violence against women at home: the Punjab Prevention of Violence Against Women Act of 2016. A Women Development department was introduced in the Punjab Secretariat, showing how the PML-N government recognized the need to especially alleviate and address the sufferings unique to women as a group in society. Female bureaucrats, female police officials, and female statesmen rose to the public eye in a conservative society as a result of these conducive policies.
These are just some facts in a very long list that discredit propaganda that has been unleashed to justify the incompetencies of our current government. To individually target each accusation is a feature-length piece on its own. Yet, be it in his safari suit combating dengue or floods, resisting powerful lobbies demanding subsidies and the removal of taxes, fervently pursuing economical deals and investments, or raising his voice and introducing legislation for the under-privileged, Shehbaz Sharif has proven his scrupulousness as a statesman again and again. Try as they might, they cannot change this fact.
(to be continued)