Monday, March 16, 2009

Nawaz Sharif, What Would Make Me Trust Him, And Costly Signals

With Pakistan in the midst of unmitigated political turmoil, I want to turn my attention to one of the central protagonists in this drama: Nawaz Sharif.

First, some background. Regular readers know that I consider Nawaz Sharif to be a blatant opportunist, a power-hungry hypocrite, a sharp political mind, and dangerously close to religious right-wing forces.

I find it troubling -- to say the least -- that the man whose supporters stormed the Supreme Court a dozen years ago to obviate a case being heard against him is now the so-called champion for the independence of the judiciary.

I find it bizarre that the same man who stuffed the bureaucracy, the courts, the police and the military with supporters; the same man who had journalists such as Najam Sethi kidnapped and beaten; the man who proclaimed himself Amir-ul-Momineen (Supreme Leader) and attempted to rush through a Sharia bill in an attempt to aggrandize yet more power is now the man who stands up for the rule of law and constitutional democracy.

I find it laughable that the man who took the first opportunity to flee the country rather than suffer in jail is now hailed -- primarily by supporters of his party -- has standing up the forces of dictatorship when in fact he did quite the opposite: cut, run, and jump back into the fray at an opportune moment.

Lastly, as a secular liberal, I find Nawaz Sharif's dalliances -- and that is putting it charitably -- with the religious right to be harbingers of an institutionalized religiosity enacted (or magnified) by the state and society, an outcome which I would prefer to avoid.

To sum up: the spectacle of Nawaz Sharif assuming the position he has in the discursive space in Pakistani politics is akin to George W. Bush returning to politics at some point in the future on the platform of being against torture, tax cuts, dumb wars, and religious conservatism. It is, to put it mildly, cause for cognitive dissonance.

All this aside, I am not a partisan, but an empiricist. If someone can convince me with evidence that Nawaz Sharif really has changed -- that he is not in fact simply chasing power, but is truly fighting for principles to which we all would like to adhere to -- then more power to him, in all senses of the phrase. I have nothing against the Nawaz Sharif the person, nor do I have anything against the PML-N per se.

The problem that we as observers of politics face is simple: at first glance, there is simply no way of knowing which interpretation is correct. Given the evidence available, partisan supporters of Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N can claim that he truly has changed, and actually believes that 'I am again ready for reconciliation only for restoration of the deposed judges, supremacy of the judiciary, repeal of 17th amendment, charter of democracy and bright future of the masses and country. I am not demanding any portfolio but seeking safety of the country and its dwellers". On the other hand, those who tend to be more skeptical can dismiss these words as exactly that: all talk, covering up a deep desire to return to power at any cost.

How do we solve this quandary? In other words, what mechanism -- if any -- will allow us to tell for sure whether Nawaz Sharif is a reformer (as he says) or a power-hungry opportunist (as I say)?

Some elementary game theory proffers a potential solution.

Before we go any further, let us consider two fairly different phenomena: courtship and college.

When talking about courtship, it might be useful to lay down some simplifying assumptions. Let us assume for the moment that there are two types of men in the world: assholes (who only want sex) and good guys (who are willing to commit). Let us further assume that women would like to go on dates only with good guys, and would like to reject the advances of assholes. Finally, let us assume that when a single woman meets a man, she is completely unaware which of the two categories the man she just met occupies. These assumptions are obviously not completely accurate, but they are reasonable enough for the exercise at hand.

The problem the woman faces in this situation is similar to the problem we face with Nawaz Sharif: not enough evidence to make a conclusive judgment. So if the man asks the woman out, how is she to respond? Should she say yes, or should she say no?

One thing that can help the woman decide is if the man uses "costly signals". If the man does something that is "costly" to him, this can help signal to the woman that he is committed. The important point is that whatever the cost is, it has to be high enough for the assholes to not want to do it, and for the good guys to want to do it. In game theoretic terms, the cost has to be high enough to lead to a separating equilibrium (as opposed to a pooling equilibrium). So what the woman is basically looking for is for the man to do something that a good guy would surely have no problem doing, but which would be beyond an asshole's capabilities.

Are there examples of such actions? Sure. Consider the act of buying flowers, and walking over to the woman's house and giving them to her personally. This act is costly, in terms of money (the price of the flowers), time (going to the florist, and then the woman's apartment), and energy (all that walking). It is so costly, in fact, that assholes -- by virtue of being assholes -- would never consider doing it. By contrast, good guys -- by virtue of being good guys -- are prepared to pay this cost. Ergo, if the woman sees the man in question at her doorstep with flowers, she knows he's a good guy, and consequently will agree to go out with him. [Again, this a highly stylized view of the world, but I would submit to you that there is a degree of insight here, so it is ultimately useful]. What the good guy has done, in this instance, is send a costly signal to the woman of his "type": he is telling her, in effect, that he is not an asshole, but a good guy because he has done something that only a good guy would do.

Now consider college. People go to college for many reasons, to be sure, but one of them is to get a job after college that pays well and provides a relatively comfortable lifestyle. It is no coincidence that many lucrative careers are available only to those who have graduated college. And yet, there is little correlation between what we study at college and what we do in the work environment. So really, what is the point of going to college?

Some game theorists argue that going to college is a costly signal of one's intelligence. Again, go back to the courtship example, where we had two types of signal senders: assholes and good guys. In this example, let us again assume that there are only two types of people in the world: stupid people and smart people. Let us further assume that when an employer meets a job applicant, (s)he cannot tell whether the applicant is of one type (smart) or the other (stupid). Finally, let us assume that the employer would like to hire all the smart people who apply for the job, and reject all the stupid people that apply for the job. What can the potential employee do to "signal" to the employer that (s)he is smart, and thus should be given the job?

Well, going to college is the answer for some. If you agree with the assertion that completing college is easier for smart people than stupid people -- or that the cost of graduating college is lower for smart people than for stupid people -- then you must agree with the assertion that at some level of difficulty, stupid people will simply opt out of going to college because it is not worth the cost. Thus if you are facing a college graduate across the table as an employer, you are inclined to hire them -- not because the person learned something valuable at college, but because their having completed college is a costly signal of their ability. It is similar to the courtship story: by virtue of having done something that is beyond the capabilities of the other "type" (stupid people in the college story, assholes in the courtship story), you have signaled your type.

What possible relevance does all this nonsense about college and flowers have to do with Nawaz Sharif? Well, not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but it is important in one key aspect: for those who want to believe Nawaz Sharif when he says all these grands things, but cannot believe him (people like me), a costly signal can help allay concerns of Nawaz Sharif's "type".

So to go back to our dichotomous framework, let us assume that there are two potential types Nawaz Sharif could take: true reformer, or hot-air balloon. If he is a true reformer, he truly believes everything he says about democracy and freedom and the independence of the judiciary and the supremacy of the parliament. If he is a hot-air balloon, he is simply saying those things to get back in power and eat more jalebis.

Assuming Nawaz Sharif is a reformer, what possible costly signal can he send to us skeptics to convince us? What actions or words, put differently, will be too costly for a hot-air balloon but easy for a true reformer?

Imagine, for a moment, if you heard the following speech from Nawaz Sharif:
Merey aziz humwatano, Assalam-o-alaikum. We are at a critical juncture in our nation's history. Our movement has been successful in restoring the illegally deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudary. For this we can all be proud. And yet, significant challenges remain.

To change the course of Pakistan's future, we must be honest about its past. To finally deal with the threat of militancy and terrorism, we must recognize where these forces came from, who supported them, and why it was such a misguided strategy. To adequately address the gross inequalities that pervade the socio-economic spheres of our state, we must first understand the structural imbalances of opportunity, education and health that have led to this deplorable status quo. To ensure sustainable and truly democratic processes, we must take heed of the people and institutions resposible for our ephemeral relationship with political freedom.

The virtues of remembering and learning from the past have been hammered into me by the events of the last two years. I have made many mistakes in my career -- and I'm not just talking about my hair transplant.

When General Musharraf fired Pakistan's Chief Justice two years ago, it reminded me of my ill-fated move against the judiciary twelve years ago. I, like Musharraf, was wrong to place constraints and impediments against the third arm of government from functioning freely. My party supporters should not have stormed the Supreme Court, and I take full responsibility for their actions that day. I should have fought as hard for Sajjad Ali Shah's independence as a judge as I did for Iftikhar Chaudhry's; I did not, and for this only I am to blame.

As I saw both General Musharraf and Asif Zardari attempt to aggrandize even more power and do away with checks and balances, I was reminded of my attempts to do the same, especially in my second term. I had little tolerance for political opponents -- from journalists to opposition parties to suspect supporters in the bureaucracy -- and sought to get rid of them. I treated the constitution and parliament with as little respect as a democratically elected figure could possibly do. I was not interested in democracy then, and seeing where my actions led has convinced me that dictatorship can come in the uniform of military fatigues as well as a crisp white shalwar-kurta. Indeed, this is why I have fought Mr. Zardari so hard in the last six months -- I have directed this movie before, and it does not have a happy ending.

Finally, a word about my opposition to the ghaddars of the PML-Q -- as well as my opposite to the late Mohtarma's flirtations with the forces of dictatorship. Once again, my opposition has roots in my personal history. My political career was kicked off as a protege of the most repressive force in Pakistan's political history -- General Zia-ul-Haq. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was aided and abetted by the military and the ISI, who shared my then-indomitable hostility to Benazir Bhutto. I have learned the hard way that cooperation with repressive political forces for short-term gain has no place in a mature polity, and should be discarded as a viable option for any political leader worth their weight.

Many of the grossest and most criminally negligent of the mistakes made by Pakistan's leaders in the last three years have been committed before, including by myself. As a changed man, I have come to see the folly of my actions and, by extension, theirs. Only someone who has been to the dark side can truly claim to have seen the light. If you return me to power, I promise to uphold the 1973 constitution and the Charter of Democracy in both its letter and spirit. On this you have my word.

Pakistan paindabad.


Why do I want to see the previous speech from Nawaz Sharif? Because, as yet, I have failed to see convincing evidence of the fact that he realizes he did anything wrong in his time in power. He has blamed every which actor in Pakistani politics except for himself. He has not acknowledged his mistakes. Consequently, it becomes more difficult to forgive and forget for rational observers such as myself, because as far as I am concerned, he will do the same things again when returned to power.

Recall my discussion of costly signals and separating equilibria. The difference between a true reformer and a power-hungry opportunist is that the former doesn't care about power per se, but only cares that those mistakes not be repeated. To that end, a true reformer will feel fewer qualms about being completely upfront and honest about his or her own shortcomings, especially shortcomings that are extremely relevant to present crises. A power-hungry opportunist, by contrast, will attempt to brush over those issues, because he or she will be concerned first and foremost with securing power. An admission of mistakes made, then, can be a costly signal of Nawaz Sharif's true type: it would simply be too costly for a power-hungry opportunist to pursue with any degree of certainty, whereas it should be a piece of cake for the true reformer.

So Mr. Lion of Punjab, which will it be?


Anonymous said...

Let me be the first one to applaud you on your insightful and witty post.I must say you have a great sense of humor- 'I am not just talking about hair transplant' and speech of Sharif was just hilarious.

But I disagree with your analogies.Firstly, girls are not that stupid.They know that nice guys who gives flowers and cards to them can also be bad guys or assholes. Showing up at her door with a bunch of daisies can’t hurt, but won't make a lasting impression.That's for sure.
Secondly,you are confusing intelligence with learning.Many rich and successful people are high school and college dropouts. A college degree is not necessarily a sign of intelligence.Even in companies- E.Q not I.Q matters.

Anyway,great analysis.Love the post as usual.

takhalus said...

NS can't change ..he won solely because of his opponent. What he has done is mobilise Punjab and confirm something I have said since 1993..NS is the first genuainely punjabi anti establishment leader since Ranjit Singh.

That does not make NS a good guy ..nor a very intelligent one..he is obviously more charismatic(sic!) than Zardari who frankly attracts crowds by milking his wifes name and on the back of the same party activists he is bypassing.

lala pathan said...

I am starting to like the guy . Atleast he is the 1st one to openly admit that he was wrong. Can't wait for the show to continue. Like it or not this is a new chapter in pakistan.The president gave into the pressure of people. Can't believe this is happening..lmao

Anonymous said...

If you have so much time at hand, do not waste on NS.

somethingrichandstrange said...

did the people who posted the first and third comments even read your post?
anyway, would any other (more subtle) costly signal from nawaz suffice?

NSER said...

Wow I must have missed that speech from NS. Did not GEO broadcast it? Anyways, it's good to see NS turning over a new leaf as they say. SUBAH KA BHOOLA AGAR SHAAM KO GHAR A JAIY TO USAY BHOOLA NAHIN KEHTAY so it's tremendous that NS has acknowledged his mistakes and now is the time right to take power. Nobody in Pakistan's history has ever acknowledged his mistakes so fairly and upfrontly. Well done NS!!

Ahsan said...


I agree with most of everything you say, except I would modify one of your statements: Nawaz Sharif has only become anti-establishment since 1999.


That's a good question. One obvious costly signal is available, but certainly less subtle: a promise to not contest elections -- this would convince people that he does not want power at all. Of course, the probability of him doing this is nil.

Do you have any ideas yourself? Remember, the point of the costly signal has to be that it would be too costly for a power-hungry politician, so it by definition can't be too subtle.

Jiyala said...

What do you think about Mr. Altaf Hussain?

Riaz Haq said...

Thinking beyond the Zardari era, I see many Pakistanis hoping that a new politics may emerge in Pakistan around the faces and frameworks of the lawyers movement and that it will remain true to its aspirations rather than succumbing to political temptations.

While I abhor the feudal politics of Pakistan and share the hope of new politics based on civility and rule of law, I do think that the lawyers movement and the case of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been exploited by cynical politicians to achieve their own objectives of destroying their opponents. The violent and uncivil methods used by this movement are also highly questionable and unjustified in a democracy. What Pakistanis need more than anything now is a period of relative stability to allow economic and civic activity to resume so the poor and hungry can take care of themselves. Make no mistake about it, the lawyers’ fight for higher ideals is being fought at the expense of those who can least afford it. As long as there is serious economic deprivation and resulting violence in Pakistan, it will be extremely difficult to achieve true democratic ideals. Instead, we’ll be dealing with rising insurgency and expansion of “Swats” in Pakistan.

Anonymous said...

good going bro,

i have heard that he admitted of being power hungry and promoting his favourites in some interview to dawn. I havent been able to find the interview , yet.

anybody can confirm or reject it.

Aditya Sehgal said...

Excellent Post and analysis. I really enjoyed reading it.

Jadev,India said...

As a rule of the thumb, politicians never admit mistakes unless their backs are to the wall..famous one being of Bill Clinton's dogged assertion that blow job doesn't constitute intercourse.
In Pakistan, right now no oligarchical elite from Zardari,Sharif brothers or Imran Khan have the maturity,skill or integrity to lead in the minefield of Pak politics. Benazir was one who could make a difference which was precisely why she was killed in the first place..

Bruno said...

I am not sure I agree with you on this one. My first caveat would be that I don't believe politicians' charakter, their actual beliefs and intentions really matter too much.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions (btw, who said that?) and a politician might, depending on the circumstances, achieve a lot of good for purely selfish reasons. I do not take a Nietzschean position here, condemning all forms of altruism and idealism, I'm just saying it depends on the circumstances.

But even if we believe that his actual intentions matter, I am not sure a speech like the one you suggested would tell us much. The question is: Would holding such a speech actually be costly for him? Would he actually alienate a lot of allies or voters? Couldn't it be a purely opportunistic move in order to win people like you?

Now I don't know enough about Pakistan's society and political system to judge the potential consequences of such a speech. But I believe that depending o a country's political culture (I know, political scientist should never resort to political culture to explain anything...) such a move could bring him a lot of sympathies (allies, voters), hence it wouldn't be costly anymore.

Rabia said...

"Nawaz Sharif has only become anti-establishment since 1999."

hm, well I disagree with takhalus that he is consistently anti-establishment. In the current situation for example, he & Kayani were able to put aside their differences quite well to deal with Zardari. But Nawaz has had dispus with the army since 1993 with Waheed Kakar & 1998 with Jehangir Karamat, and some other big conflicts with people like Aslam Beg, etc, before then.

Rabia said...


karachi khatmal said...

perhaps to put NS in context, take ZAB and BB.

after their deaths, especially amongst foreign readers, it seems to be that BB was the greatest political leader the east has ever seen. it was also argued that it was only the dead weight husband of hers who caused so many problems, otherwise she was perfect.

i remember her governments, and she really wasn't perfect, or very competent all the time. ( i am literally scared writing this, as i expect cyber jiyalas to break by screen any moment.)

i was far far more disillusioned with ZAB. my grandmother had been one of the PPP's founding members, and to hear them talk of the man would send shivers down your spine. and he had these awesome quotes (know the kennedy cabinet one?)

then you read history and realise he fucked over the baloch, became a megalomaniac, and started islamization before zia did. ask any ahmedi for confirmation.

yet today, the most intelligent pakistanis refuse to say a word against him. i am not speculating this, i have talked to a lot of really cool pakistani intellectuals and the sort who have gone to the point of politely apologizing, saying we're not going to say anything about him.

so perhaps same is the case with NS. a lot of us can see the bullshit, but post 2007, the only opportunistic thing i have seen him do is pounce wholeheartedly on the lawyer's movement once his government was dismissed.

but he has also done a lot of right things. and perhaps the question is would we rather have semi-reformed civilian leaders, or competent military ones?

supe said...

i second karachi khatmal's last sentence and to answer the question i personally would prefer a dozen zardaris over one musharraf.

i have actually had the opportunity to meet NS and up-close he has that kind of awe-inspiring quality about him, and seems non-threatening and he's surprisingly more articulate and intelligent sounding in real life than on tv. i can easily see how he appeals to the masses.
(no, i'm not gloating over meeting him, i'm sure a lot of us have and some of these politicians aren't exactly the most exclusive sort either.)

a seperate note about the current president AZ, ofc he's bloody flawed but he represents democracy and thus i completely wiped the slate clean and watched him with a renewed vision when he was elected. he is prone to slip-ups and has made a few dumb-ass decisions and he's unpredictable to boot, but one solid thing i can say about about him is that he is a survivor.
if there's anyone who can wheedle himself out of a tense predicament it's this guy.

though, how his survival skills will translate in pakistan's future is yet to be revealed.

back to NS, love the post but i also find it a tad pointless;
will NS be given a second (3rd/4th/5th-whatever) chance? yes he will.

regardless of whether a select few don't trust him or think he's an opportunist, because the bottom line is; he's come out looking like a shining hero and the crowds love him. that and the fact that the nation's jigar' imran khan has shimmied his way into NS's crowd.
i'm sorry boy, you're fighting a losing battle here.

farigh mistri said...

First time reader.. and i am sold. You have great writing skills.. i cant normally get through this big an entry (ADD)..
IMO, NS is a reformed opportunist.

Ahsan said...


Actually, that's something I mulled over for quite a while: the possibility that even an admission of mistakes would just be more cheap talk. I decided against that position primarily because admitting ones mistakes, especially when they're as serious as the ones NS has made, would be near unprecedented in Pakistani politics. He would really show people that he's learned from the 1990s. But you're right; such a speech could just be tactical. In any event, it's sort of immaterial because he would never make it.


Maybe we live in different circles, but I've definitely heard people criticize ZAB. For whatever it's worth.

Korangi said...

Mr. Ahsan what do you think of Altaf Hussain?

Ahsan said...

What's with all the questions about Altaf Hussain? Where did he come from and why is it relevant to this post?

HMS Nerd said...

What a delightful analogy of the flowers to offer to help people groping for an understanding of exactly what's going on with this question of Sharif. The point is sort of moot:

bonobashi said...

The lesson that I got out of this as a secular liberal is that secular liberals know next to nothing about politics. It doesn't seem reasonable to blame the blessed man for riding the wave of popular sentiment and getting himself instant acclaim; why should that in any way interfere with his power drive or with his ruthless ambition? It should be quite acceptable to see him lend his apparently large constituency to what was, I understand, originally more or less a PPP cause, and help keep the movement broad-based and general in nature. Something like JP tried just before the Emergency.

On the score of courting and college, the analysis doesn't ring true in this day and age. It is not at all clear that all women are looking for commitment on all dates; this is not my mid-life crisis speaking, but just an uneasy observation on the ways things have changed. So while the argument used is acceptable to prove the point, the facts have shifted their ground a bit.

However, I have deeper objections to your analysis. It seems to be based quite a bit on one country's rather edgy relationship with democracy and with elections. From a somewhat different perspective, repeated elections allow for far more tolerance in the system. It is possible to vote for a politician who has proved to be selfish and evil in his governing methods without making a final commitment to that person. There is in fact no final commitment in a well-run, or even a not-very-well-run democracy, like for instance the one I live in, the one across Pakistan's eastern borders. In those circumstances, a date with an arsehole really doesn't matter; he can be dumped. Example: Indira Gandhi before the Emergency, proven to be arsehole by the Emergency, dumped rather hard post-Emergency, back in power with a strong wave soon afterwards. After being punished for the immediate betises that they have committed, politicians are re-usable, contrary to popular opinion. And if they are re-usable, it's good enough if they give lip service to whatever it is they are giving their lips to at that point of time. If they prove that they are saying what they are saying just for the votes, they tend to lose the next elections. So they don't have to be good or bad, just OK in the circumstances.

Finally, a quibble; would you mind awfully avoiding phrases like,"...obviate a case against him"?

takhalus said...

NS is not above collabarating with the establishment post 1993 to get what he wants ..(1997 elections and 2000) are good examples of that..however he was sufficiently bold or stupid enough to get it's help and take it in the 1997 elections..while swiftly stripping Leghari of his powers afterwards.

It's not a good comparison but ZAB did much the same as in using people like Gul Hasan and then getting rid of them in 1971. Again that is not to compare the two as politicians but in NS's case it's just to show what he is in a lesser time.

Korangi said...

I am recent visitor to this site. I looked at archives and see only criticisms of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari.

Why never any criticism of Altaf? You shred Mian Sahib to peices. Give me 5 criticismz of Mr. Altaf.

Ahsan said...


A couple of points. I have said time and again on the blog that NS is completely within his rights to ride this wave, as you put it. In fact, I have been on record as saying he would be stupid not to. It's politically astute. That said, I am not going to believe he means what he says unless he gives me a reason to do so. That was the point of the post.

The courtship/college stories were meant to be illustrative rather than cogent descriptions of reality. I only meant to highlight a particular causal mechanism, nothing else.

I completely agree with your last point, which seems to be that democracy begets more democracy. I do think there's something to be said for the fact that these norms and procedures need time to cement themselves, and for a number of reasons, have never had that time in Pakistan. However, and this point is key, civilian elites bear as much responsibility for this as the military in Pakistan. Civilian elites like Nawaz Sharif, I might add.

Captain03 said...

just another corrupt politician
i just posted a piece about him in my blog
read it if u can