Apparently, the decision by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to retain the portfolios of foreign affairs and defence is, politically speaking, an astute one. It puts him at rest about the two most sensitive jobs falling into vulnerable hands.
Islamabad's foreign policy has long been outsourced to the military with the foreign minister merely a figurehead, enacting the script as given. The photogenic Hina Khar did a decent job of profiling the same, and with distinction. But no-one ever accused her of minding the store independently!
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, whom Khar succeeded as foreign minister, didn't quite cover himself in glory as the Pakistan People's Party's chosen one. He went along with the powerful security establishment in the Raymond Davis affair, for instance, where contrary to President Zardari's keenness to see the CIA contractor released on account of "diplomatic immunity" after he had killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight, Qureshi resisted the move with a nod and a wink from the security establishment.
This annoyed his party boss, who was eventually forced to lump it till such time the khakis wheedled out a deal with the Americans.
An aggravated Zardari merely pretended to swallow the insult, but soon forced a cabinet reshuffle in which Qureshi was demoted. But the parliamentarian from Multan — the city of saints — refused to have anything to do with the "unattractive" agriculture ministry and, before long, quit the PPP altogether and joined Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
It is therefore, understandable for Sharif to keep the job with him. Obviously, the prime minister wants to be the master of his destiny by driving the relationship with important capitals like Washington, New Delhi, Kabul, Riyadh and Beijing — capitals over which, save for the last two, the military has a mind not necessarily in sync with Sharif.
The third-time PM wants to pursue an independent policy with India that banks heavily on trade. He understands that the surest way to divest Pakistan's fragile democratic system of its military overreach is to turn the economy around, and for which, it is perhaps, crucial that Pakistan realizes the full potential of trade with India.
The spin-off would be that the two neighbours would per force have to normalize relationship in other spheres — even the revival of a bilateral cricket series in the true sense with India touring Pakistan has great potential to restore normal and peaceful ties. India has long been favourably disposed towards Sharif, who wants to capitalise on this as a great CBM.
Potentially, such a relationship will free up the eastern borders thus providing room to focus Islamabad's energies elsewhere, purely in military terms. However, it is easier said than done with the security establishment ever so wary of New Delhi. Unsurprisingly, the military leadership has already reportedly "advised" Sharif twice in the space of a fortnight or so to go slow.
Hina Khar wowed India with her gloss quotient, and even though it led to the clamour for a sustained composite dialogue, no-one was fooled by where the honed script was coming from, and how much of a chance the last PPP government had of breathing life into the process given its gingerly approach to issues it felt were not in its domain.
With Sharif, an industrialist to boot, there's a decent chance there will be movement in this crucial area of Pakistan's foreign policy — to kickstart the economy by easing trade barriers.
The PML-N supremo also wants to have a handle on defence. Again, it is understandable both in terms of his past aborted stints in power and the immediate past where PPP's Ahmed Mukhtar's unimpressive record as defence minister thanks to near-total lack of control kept the civilian government majorly out of the loop.
Ideally, the defence minister should be the PM's point man on military matters, but the PM himself taking charge of the Ministry of Defence is a stellar statement. Even though in practice, the military has tended to stamp its feet on the line, hopefully, in Pakistan's changed environment of today, it might not be all that easy to do so with a powerful PM.
Such a move also has an inherent damage-control benefit when you consider how, in late 2011, civil-military relations took a nosedive over the infamous Memogate, leading the-then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to openly accuse the military establishment of running a parallel government. In a battle of attrition that ensued, the prime minister ended up sacking the defence secretary in a derring-do that led to much chaos and immediate speculation of even a possible coup.
Having been bitten twice at the hands of the military, Sharif would be extremely wary of such an unintended implosion, and by keeping the defence portfolio appears to give the impression he wants to keep the lid tight. It may be that Prime Minister Sharif wants to test the security establishment's sincerity in cooperating with him before he feels comfortable enough to loosen his grip.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.