Pakistan’s election year has begun but the main political parties are in disarray. The ‘Deep State’ has ensured this would be the scene in the run up to the elections scheduled for later in the year. The once great party, the PPP, has drifted into such irrelevance that political commentators in Pakistan barely mention it. What was once meant to be the King’s Party – the PML (N) – when it was created by General Zia-ul-Haq, to oppose Benazir’s PPP and led by his protege Nawaz Sharif, has been rendered leaderless by judicial activism. It seems the ‘Deep State’ has been acting with a two-word whip – Get Nawaz.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), whose cricketer-turned-political leader Imran Khan has pretensions to political greatness, now appears to be more a pantomime and less a serious party. It would appear that for the present, unless something dramatic happens, the GHQ (General Headquarters at Rawalpindi) has it all tied up safely for itself for the next five years.
The elections are still several weeks away, but a week is a long time in politics where strange things are known to happen. No prime minister in Pakistan has served his or her full term; only one government, that of Asif Zardari, was able to complete its five-year tenure, but had to sacrifice its prime minster.
The elections in 2008 had brought Asif Zardari’s PPP (after the assassinated Benazir Bhutto bequeathed the party leadership to her husband in her will – strange but may be true) to power. The beleaguered dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, accused by Benazir of plotting her assassination, bolted from Pakistan. What the GHQ did not expect was the decrepit regime would last its full term of five years despite Memogate and other methods of skullduggery.
It was a landmark for Pakistani democracy when Zardari’s elected government transferred power to another political party in Pakistan after the elections in 2013. Things were expected to change said many starry-eyed intellectuals, some to be found in India. Others were more pragmatic and did not wear rose-tinted glasses. Nothing had changed and nothing would change, they (including this author) said.
The Army would continue to rule; it no longer needed to stage a coup and come up front. Far better to let the politicians pretend to rule, take the blame while the Army would continue to control and rake in all the profits of war and democracy. Nawaz Sharif’s election through a democratic process was not welcomed by the ‘Deep State’ – the fear of democracy taking root in Pakistan was second only to the fear of India and had to be snuffed out.
Soon enough, they put Nawaz Sharif’s government to the test in 2014. Imran Khan and his new ally, Tahir-ul- Qadri from Canada and leader of the Hizb-ut-Tehrir, mysteriously appeared on the streets of Islamabad, flush with money, organising protests and lock downs and accusing Nawaz Sharif of election malpractices and demanding re-elections.
Just as Nawaz Sharif himself had done in the last year of the Zardari government by taking issues to the streets, he was subjected to the same treatment early in his innings to let him know where the real power lay and to keep him on the back foot. But, Nawaz was tougher; he had been thrown out of power twice before and he did not want to be third time unlucky.
He took the battle to the ‘enemy’ when he sought Musharraf’s arrest and trial for treason. This broadside against a former army chief in Pakistan was blasphemy according to the Pindi Boys. Nawaz was being not only indiscreet but also positively rebellious. He committed another sin when he dared to seek better relations with “enemy” India, especially when he began to get friendly with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.
Nawaz Sharif had become bad news. He had to go, but not in a military coup which would turn off all the money taps. The Panama Papers have helped and Sharif lost his premiership in July last year and followed by another harsh judgment delivered a few days ago.
The Supreme Court has now removed Nawaz Sharif even from the leadership of his party. The judgment is potentially dangerous for the future of democratic processes in Pakistan. The court is expected to interpret law, impart justice and not give person-specific judgments. The decision that nullifies all past decisions of Nawaz Sharif since his re-election last year is manifestly excessive and unfair.
At moments like this, there are questions about the future of the PML (N) and Nawaz himself. There will be the usual, including the bureaucrats with their secrets, who will jump ship but the party has also shown that in the past, it has held together.
Despite being sent into exile in Saudi Arabia by General Musharraf, Nawaz showed enough resilience and had the party’s support to stage a political comeback in 2007. Even after Nawaz’s ouster last year, the party held together. There will be the usual rumours of internal dissensions and family squabbles in a party that has been dynastic.
There may be a consensus building up around Nawaz’s brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. A great deal would depend on the family holding together and Nawaz being willing to accept his role as ’eminence gris’, or for that matter, the party accepting this role, and finally, would the GHQ have any preferences for the much-married younger brother.
Nawaz’s posture since his ouster as prime minister has been aggressive, presumably trying to portray confidence about returning to power.
Imran Khan, the Pathan from Mianwali, is the newest overgrown kid on the block. Idol of many, he missed the bus when he could not capitalise on the political adversity of his arch rival Nawaz Sharif.
Apart from angry speeches and loose statements that have landed him in a legal suit last year by Pakistan’s biggest media chain, the Jang Group, who had slapped a suit for one billion rupees and an unconditional apology. Many are not seeing Imran as an alternative to Nawaz.
Yasser Latif Hamdani, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School has an interesting story to tell. He describes Imran as a deeply religious and superstitious type even if his antics as a notorious playboy contradict this reality.
He also has spiritual advisers telling him what he should do to become prime minister. His party, the PTI, announced earlier this month that he had married Bushra Manika (aka PinkiPirni), mother of five, on February 18. (Actually, they got married a few months ago). It seems that the woman had a dream. A most holy personage in Islam told her that for Imran Khan to become prime minister, she must marry him, and then, both Pakistan and Islam would truly prosper.
She consulted her husband, who promptly agreed to a divorce and, in November, the couple divorced, described by her son as having occurred on the orders of Allah and His Messenger.
Imran, eager to be prime minister swallowed this story. There is not much to commend Imran and this latest foray has not endeared him to many of his followers.
The “burger” class among his followers is unhappy that he has married a woman who is dressed in “a shuttle cock burqa”
This has also not pleased the hardened Deobandhis who constitute his most ardent followers, for, he has married a Sufi despite the fact that the bride wore a burqa.
It seems that Imran is actually a closet fundamentalist and has begun to play the religious card assiduously.
He has wooed former senator Sami ul-Haq, leader of his faction of the Jamaatul-Islam (S) and chancellor of the Darul Uloom Haqqania, for an alliance to fight the Senate elections together.
Sami ul-Haq’s CV is impressive. Known as the father of the Taliban, his madrassa has been the alma mater of the Taliban. Haq has been Chairman of the right wing Difa-e-Pakistan Council – an alliance of more than 40 political and religious parties opposed to US and India. In 2013, he formed the Mutahida Deeni Mahaz, an alliance of right-wing political and religious parties to contest elections.
It is with this extreme right wing that Imran Khan has close relations and the PTI government in Khyber PakhtunKhwa announced an additional grant of Rs 227 million to the Haqqania madrassa. This is an addition to the Rs 300 million granted in the previous budget. The latest hand out has come just ahead of the Senate elections.
This kind of largesse to a madrassa globally acknowledged as the seminary of the Taliban comes at a time when the Pakistan government is battling the FATF resolution in Paris. This is not likely to embarrass the Pakistan government known for its double speak.
The election turf is essentially between the PTI and PML (N); more specifically in the Punjab province and in terms of personalities, between Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif/Shahbaz Sharif.
The Sharif family still has considerable control in the Punjab but the religious right and the Army will be the match referees.