The election offers some hope of arresting the steadily declining trajectory of the Pakistani nation in terms of its economy and security. But what Pakistan needs is not just to halt the trend, but to reverse it.
The effort made by the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) militants to undermine the election by attacking the secularist parties like the Awami National Party (ANP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), has made it clear that the battle for the soul of Pakistan will only intensify in the weeks and months following the elections.
And if the successor government is not able to markedly impact on the lives of the ordinary Pakistani, in terms of better security and governance, and an improved economy, Pakistan will inevitably drift towards authoritarianism in the coming years.
Having a trusted hand like Nawaz Sharif at the helm is a plus point, but he would have to undertake a herculean labour to transform Pakistan's condition. If he fails, there will only be despair.
NegotiationThe challenges facing Pakistan are primal. The first is security of the average citizen. As of now, the gun rules the roost, and in the main, it is in the hands of Sunni extremists who target the minorities, whether they are Hindus and Christians, or Muslims of a different sect, such as the Shias and the Ahmadis. But the situation cannot improve unless there is a re-scripting of Pakistan's contemporary narrative away from the one being dictated by the Deobandi and Ahle Hadis extremists.
Parties like the PTI and the PML-N claim that they are ready to negotiate with the militants. But are the militants ready to negotiate with them? The argument that an American withdrawal, presumably accompanied by an end to drone strikes in Pakistan, will calm the agitated Pakhtun tribes would appear to be a case of hope triumphing over reality.
The jihadis have tasted too much power to simply fade away; they will have to be defeated in the battlefield and therein lies the rub. Having used a variety of extremists to further what they considered Pakistan's national goals in India and Afghanistan, the security establishment is compromised when it comes to dealing with these extremists wielding the gun.
The armed forces have kept a low profile in recent years, but that is more because it realised that direct intervention in the state's affairs would make their own situation untenable.
ArmyThey have not forgotten the depths to which their reputation plunged in the last years of Musharraf's presidency. And the former dictator's plight at the hands of the courts recently has only served to enhance their caution. But, compared to the discredited civilian system, the army remains the most organised institution in Pakistan and the only one which can take on the militants.
Besides insecurity, Pakistan needs to transform its economic condition. Poor governance also means an inability to collect taxes that can be used for economic development. But equally important for Pakistan is the need to open up its economy to the larger South Asian market.
It is only economic integration of a vast area, extending from Central Asia to Myanmar, which will generate uniform economic development in South Asia.
Creating artificial barriers, such as the ones Pakistan puts against India, only hurts the former more than the latter. In January 2004, SAARC nations agreed to create a South Asian Free Trade Area by 2014. But Pakistan has dithered in providing the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) access to India. It remains to be seen whether the business-friendly Sharif can deliver on this front.
A scenario of a unified South Asian economic area is the best long-term guarantee of peace and prosperity in the region. But the real challenge for the Pakistani parties is to undo the narrative of religious extremism.
Ironically, the feudal nature of parties like the PPP and the PML-N has shielded Pakistan from religious extremists. But for Pakistan's economic and social governance to improve, there is need to eliminate feudalism. The danger is obvious: instead of being replaced by progressive forces, it could well give way to a system dominated by the religious extremists.
PowersThe PML-N retains a soft spot for some of them, though Nawaz's ties with the Jammat-e-Islami have weakened. But if he wants to change things in Pakistan, he will have to take a clear-cut stand against Sunni extremists who are bent on wiping out the minorities and even Shia Muslims.
Things are not going to be easy. Nawaz Sharif's agenda is already crowded. And there will be clear limits to his powers, especially on Afghanistan, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), and the nuclear weapons which will remain with the army.
Indeed, his first priority will be to work out his equations with the powerful Pakistan Army, and then try and reverse the civil war pitting the TTP and other militants against minorities and democratic institutions.
At the same time, he must deliver on his promise to revitalise Pakistan's economy.
All the goals are achievable, but they require hard work, sure-footedness and a generous measure of luck.
Mail Today May 13, 2013