Shehbaz Sharif and the SCO episode
TWO back-to-back events have suddenly catapulted Pakistan into the global and regional limelight.
Last week, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was in Pakistan on a two-day solidarity trip to create global awareness about the devastating impact of climate change and resultant massive floods in Pakistan.
The second episode is Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s protuberant – and rather flashy – participation in the Council of Heads of State meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand.
Interestingly, instead of being the topic of serious academic discussions in the mainstream media on the long-term and short-term implications on Pakistan’s foreign policy, Shehbaz Sharif’s visit was converted into a frivolous tug of war between the PTI keyboard warriors and the PML-N’s supporters on the social media.
For two days, the whole nation was hooked on social media, which was bombarded with indecent memes and ridiculous tweets from both sides.
Mr Sharif faced an awkward moment while setting up the meeting with Russian President Putin when he had to call out for help when he failed to plug in his earphone.
This was turned into a laughingstock by the PTI social media activists and projected as a “huge embarrassment” for the country.
So much so that even a person of the stature of Shireen Mazari, a former university teacher, senior journalist and minister, was indulged in some tawdry and crude tweets about Shehbaz Sharif’s each move during the two-day trip – from his demeanour in the meetings to his stroll around the dining area.
This is the reflection of the intensity of extreme polarization that has seeped deeply into our political culture – eroding all signs of decency and civility.
This is a new low in our politics. Regardless of this trashy hoopla and noise, a neutral appraisal of Shehbaz Sharif’s participation in the SCO session would reveal that he was quite successful in achieving almost all the predefined objectives.
From Pakistan’s perspective, three positive aspects of Sharif’s Samarkand yatra are quite noteworthy.
One, this event enabled PM Shehbaz Sharif to build the much-needed rapport with the key world leaders including Xi Jinping, Putin, Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi which also implies that Pakistan is gradually regaining prominence in the global political arena.
On the sidelines of the summit, he was able to have bilateral meetings with almost all the leaders there.
Secondly, and most importantly, the gathering provided an opportunity to Mr. Sharif to effectively highlight the plight of flood-affected Pakistani people who are suffering because of the brutal climate change.
On the heels of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s recent visit to the flooded areas of Pakistan which provided a perfect preamble, PM Sharif further accentuated the case for the global assistance and support for Pakistan as well as vulnerability to the climate change that wreaked havoc with the livelihood and infrastructure across the country.
He was quite successful in passing the attention of participants to the devastating floods in Pakistan, which instinctively acquired the status of a ‘priority’ point of the summit.
“For our part, we are willing to help your people. We have dispatched the necessary humanitarian aid there, and we are ready to help you organise assistance to the flood victims,” is how President Putin expressed his support.
Similar were the responses of all other leaders, including the Indian Premier Modi. Indubitably, the SCO summit is likely to have a synergistic effect on the efforts of Antonio Guterres who has been sincerely toiling hard to create awareness about climate change and its ramifications on Pakistan.
Thirdly, the tone and tenor of the SCO summit, which is being watched very closely by the US and Western capitals who are quite wary of the increasing resonance of diplomatic activities of Beijing and Moscow after the Ukraine invasion, is likely to compel Washington to send some positive overtures when Shehbaz Sharif visits the US to attend the UN General Assembly session later this month.
The US and its allies are desperate to scuttle the joint efforts of the Sino-Russia duo to disrupt the global power equilibrium.
Yet, it is an opportunity for Pakistan to act as a bridge in this evolving global power equation and find a more influential role acceptable to both camps in the coming days.
On the home front, too, through this trip, Shehbaz Sharif has also been able to score many points.
The PTI social media activists as well as senior leaders were trying to ridicule him on every image and every video – be it fake, original or photoshopped – and project him as a naïve leader who lacks the understanding of protocols and decorum of international diplomatic interactions.
But the fact is that Shehbaz Sharif carried him very well throughout the summit and emphatically established his credentials as a good communicator.
The high point was his one-to-one meeting with Vladimir Putin. To the utter disdain of the PTI leadership, labelling Pakistan as a priority partner in Southeast Asia, Putin was visibly showing warmness and cordiality towards PM Shehbaz Sharif.
Here it is worth mentioning that Imran Khan in his March 27 jalsa, while waving his famous letter in the air, claimed that he was being targeted by the US establishment because of his ‘closeness and friendship’ with Putin and his Moscow visit.
The Shehbaz-Putin meeting has patently punctured this very basis of his narrative. To further rub the salt into the PTI’s putrefying narrative, President Putin talked fondly about his previous encounters with Mian Nawaz Sharif.
By mentioning former PM Nawaz Sharif, and that too in such affable words, Putin has also pricked another PTI-created myth about Putin’s “exclusive friendship and fondness” for Imran Khan.
—The writer is political analyst, based in Islamabad.