Of all the tourists visiting the historic city of Lahore, Sikhs from Indian Punjab are received most warmly and there are good reasons for it. The people of the two Punjabs have a shared culture, shared history and shared geography. They speak the same language, sing the same folk songs and grow the same crops from waters they once shared. Together, their sons went to fight two world wars from where many never returned. The children of their elites studied together at Aitchison College and they were together in the Unionist Party till it collapsed and splintered.
Why did these two fun-loving people fight each other with such ferocity on the eve of Independence? A tough question, isn’t it? According to Ashish Nandy, the celebrated Indian sociologist, when you fight an intimate enemy – an enemy who is your mirror image – the conflict is going to be a no-holds-barred one because it is not just a fight against an external enemy but an act of exorcism, a process of self-cleansing that knows no mercy.
Pakistan’s politics has turned into a war of attrition between two intimate enemies from the capital of Punjab, turning our politics into a killing field yet again. There is no end to the similarities between the two most popular politicians of Pakistan. Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif come from the same city, played cricket together at the same club, enjoyed the favours of Ziaul Haq, have somewhat similar tastes, hobbies and ambitions. Like each other’s shadows, one does things that the other has done, often with a lesser skill and level of accomplishment.
“He was a club level cricketer”, Imran often comments scornfully regarding the cricketing skills of Nawaz. Something similar can be said about the charities managed by the Sharif family. But there are things where Imran trails behind.
Twenty-two years ago, when his cricketing career ended and he decided to join politics, Imran Khan found that Nawaz Sharif had already made it big. After ZA Bhutto, he had become the second politician in Pakistan’s history to found a popular national party. In 1997, during the first elections contested by the PTI, Nawaz’s Muslim League was able to get two-thirds majority in parliament while Imran contested from seven seats and lost all of them while his party bagged less than two percent votes.
Imran Khan’s politics is no different from the politics of Nawaz Sharif – provided you compare him with the Nawaz Sharif of the 1990s. It is easy to forget today that Nawaz has been on the crusade to end corruption and eliminate the corrupt for three decades. He used to be as zealous as Imran while pursuing the Bhutto family and the PPP in his struggle against corruption. While Imran is only threatening Nawaz with Adiala, Nawaz put Zardari in Adiala for years. He was once the Mr Clean of Pakistan’s politics, at least in the eyes of his followers.
Just as Imran is now the proxy for the establishment, Nawaz was once the apple of their eyes. However, there is a big difference here. Nawaz built his party while enjoying the establishment’s patronage and parted ways when he became a leader in his own right. Imran has built a party and is offering it to the establishment as a pre-fabricated PML-Q.
Like Nawaz, Imran has been able to build a popular national party, making him the third person in Pakistan’s history to do so. In the 2013 elections, when he had no iota of doubt about his sweeping victory, he turned out to be a distant second. He bagged half the votes and only 17 seats in the National Assembly compared to 117 won by Nawaz’s Muslim League.
As any of his followers will tell you, Imran is a warrior. With the PTI under his command, he appears like the head of a warrior cult waging an asymmetrical war. The refugee train of Pakistan’s democracy has been constantly under attack by his bands only because it is not being driven by him and according to his own belief and the conviction of his followers, he is the only one who knows how and where to drive this unfortunate train.
As Nawaz Sharif lies vanquished, can we assume that we have already entered into the era of the just king? We do not know yet. The only information I would like to rely upon at this point is a survey carried out ten days ago by Gallup Pakistan. According to this poll, 51 percent people wanted Nawaz to stay away from politics and go home while 49 percent wanted him to file a case and fight a legal battle. Since there is a 3-5 percent margin of error in the surveys, we can read these figures as fifty-fifty.
But there is a catch. The survey also asked this question: “If the PML-N was to elect Shahbaz Sharif as its leader and Shahbaz Sharif becomes the PM of the country, to what extent would you support this decision of PML-N?” No less than 59 percent expressed their support to this idea. While Nawaz Sharif and his political successor, Maryam Nawaz, have been hunted down, Shahbaz Sharif has survived – at least for the time being. It may be an acceptable situation to Imran Khan’s mentors but it puts him in a bind.
According to another poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan, the electoral support base of the PML-N in Punjab has been reduced by nearly 10 percent points in the aftermath of the Panama case. The beneficiaries have been both the PTI and the PPP, each to the tune of around three percent points. But this is not breaking news as yet. According to Ijaz Shafi Gilani, “The margins of PML-N domination over runner ups are so wide (in Punjab) that up to 10 percent point vote loss due to credibility loss, or any other change attributable to electoral fraud charges, does not appear sufficient to change the status quo concerning electability in the Punjab province.”
However, it is not the final tally of the damage done to the Sharifs’ camp. We have yet to estimate the losses inflicted by the Supreme Court verdict and the ouster of the prime minister. There may be more humiliation in stock for the Sharif family as NAB will go after them under the supervision of an honourable judge. This will have its own repercussions.
However, this overkill, rather than hurting the Sharif family, may even backfire on their tormentors. After all, Nawaz Sharif is still Pakistan’s most popular leader and, free from prime ministerial yolks, he will have the liberty and time to appeal directly to masses. We may also see the Muslim League return to its roots by becoming more and more vitriolic and the two parties becoming more like each other. This is indeed the worst case scenario for Pakistan’s democracy.
While the PTI is celebrating “its” great victory, the precedent set in the court can easily bring down Imran Khan even before he reaches the throne. His lawyer had already pleaded against the application of Article 62 and Article 63 by the Supreme Court while defending him. Even if he has half a dozen vertebrae in his spine, his fate cannot be different from the other 16 prime ministers – if he is able to lay his hands on the coveted sorcerer’s stone.
There is a great South Asian lesson that is hard to get before you have crossed the bridge. It is: Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi (the mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law). This saga of two intimate enemies may only come to an end when Imran Khan, the bahu (daughter-in-law) becomes a saas (mother-in-law), is evicted from the house and forced to find refuge at a nursing home.
The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.
Twitter: @zaighamkhanZaigham Khan, "Intimate enemies," The News. 2017-07-31.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political parties , Supreme court , National Assembly , Democracy , Corruption , Accountability , Politicians , Imran Khan , PM Nawaz Sharif , Pakistan , India , PTI , PMLQ