Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan Prime Minister

How Nupur Sharma unwittingly gave the Pak government a breather

The Prophet comment row with India has given the Shehbaz Sharif regime a ‘break’ from having to deal with a plunging currency, struggling economy and looming bankruptcy

The alleged offensive and preposterous remarks by Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, two senior functionaries of the BJP, on Prophet Mohammad has, as expected, set off a firestorm in the Islamic world, with even the most subdued among the nations condemning India for the purported comments even as New Delhi repeatedly said that the people at the centre of the row are no longer in the party’s scheme of things.

The anger will undoubtedly take time to subside and the government in New Delhi will have to eventually take stock of the damages — political and economic — of the friendship that was so carefully built over the last decade and more.

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The varied responses from the Islamic world were only to be expected with much of the anger directed at the individuals rather than attributing a hidden motive or an agenda. But in a time of the ascendancy of social media, tempers were seemingly frayed with some even calling for a boycott of Indian goods as a way of extracting a price. And of course there were those on the “other” side who did not wish to be left out — asking for a boycott of a certain airline, to start with.

At a time when External Affairs Ministry officials were stretched in Ukraine and had to defend themselves on any issue from oil to wheat, defusing the anger coming out of West Asia was yet another challenge. It is not as if officials were trying to defend the indefensible, but in having to answer pot shots from regimes that had no credentials to talk about secularism and offending sentiments to start with. 

And Pakistan filled that category with New Delhi least bit amused at what was coming out of the regime of Shehbaz Sharif, forget for a minute that the former Prime Minister Imran Khan was calling for the breaking up of relations with India and boycotting trade.

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For the government of Sharif, the alleged offensives against the Prophet must have been a reprieve of sorts from unexpected quarters, albeit temporary. But for the time being it gave full play to the raging controversy, trying to better the rhetoric coming out of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) or other capitals of the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman and the Emirates. 

“These abuses come in the context of the escalation of hatred and abuse of Islam in India and in the context of the systematic practices against Muslims and restrictions on them, especially in the light of a series of decisions banning headscarves in educational institutions in a number of Indian states and demolitions of Muslim properties, in addition to increase in violence against the community,” the OIC said in a statement.

Maintaining that the “offensive tweets and comments denigrating a religious personality” were made by certain individuals and not in any manner reflects the views of the Government of India and that strong action has been taken against the individuals, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi called the OIC Secretariat’s comments “unwarranted and narrow minded” and took a swipe at its motivated, mischievous and misleading comments. “This only exposes its divisive agenda being pursued at the behest of vested interests,” making a veiled reference to Pakistan.

Not to be outdone, Islamabad waded into the troubled waters and offered lessons to India on the “alarming rise of communal violence” and “hatred” against Muslims in India. “Pakistan calls upon the international community, including the United Nations and OIC, especially their human rights machinery, to take cognizance of and stop the dangerously rising ‘Hindutva’ inspired Islamophobia in India, and prevail upon the Indian authorities to prevent the systematic human rights violations against minorities in the country,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.

The Sharif dispensation perhaps did not expect the ferocity of New Delhi’s response, which ripped Islamabad’s own track record. ”…the absurdity of a serial violator of minority rights commenting on the treatment of minorities in another nation is not lost on anyone,” Bagchi said, pointing to the systemic persecution of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Ahmadiyas in that country. India has the highest respect for all religions, unlike in Pakistan, where “fanatics are eulogised and monuments built in their honour”, Bagchi went on to say.

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With politicians and political parties in Pakistan tripping over one another to see who had a better line in condemning India, for a fleeting moment, both Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif seemed to be on the same page. Bankrupt and with no one, including the customary donors, lining up to save the country, Pakistan is literally at the mercy of international financial institutions for a desperate bailout and something that is not readily happening. 

All-weather money bags like China, Saudi Arabia and other rich Gulf states are waiting for the green light from the International Monetary Fund, which is keen on economic reforms such as substantially lowering subsidies and raising the prices of fuel.

Thanks to two BJP functionaries, who have now been suspended by the party, the new regime in Pakistan has had a “break” from the routine and away from facing daily charges of incompetence and subservience to foreign powers. No one in Pakistan can be under any illusion of the economic mess and the country going the same way as Sri Lanka. Foreign exchange reserves have dipped below the $10 billion mark and could last for two months of imports; inflation is said to be around 15 per cent and could double in a short period of time; The Pakistani rupee now trades around 201 to the greenback officially and as high as 206 in the open market.

And all the goodies that people were going to enjoy by way of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that was launched with great fanfare in 2017, has turned out to be a damp squib and only dragged Pakistan into the Chinese debt trap. And, while downgrading the economic outlook to negative, Moody’s has pointedly said that if Pakistan failed to get an early way out through external financing, it was staring at a balance of payments crisis.

Along with the dire economic situation the Sharif regime is also facing a lot of political heat from Imran Khan, who is convinced that a conspiracy of sorts by the US, Israel and India forced him out and that these three countries are keeping afloat the new scheme of things in Islamabad. 

The heightened political drama brings in the role of the brass hats, an institution whose support is pivotal for any regime to survive. For now, the military has rubbished the conspiracy theory involving Washington; but if politicians continue to rock the boat and plunge the country into more chaos, it will only give ideas to the men in uniform — of course in the name of stability!

(The writer is a former senior journalist in Washington who covered North America and the United Nations)

 (The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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