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Back to the good old days?

What an amazing creature our favourite political party, the PML-N, is. It can be Asma Jahangir in the morning and Zaid Zaman Hamid in the evening. Its tactical pendulum perpetually oscillates between yarkao (scare your opponents) and yarik jao (get scared and run for cover). There are no points for guessing that the party is in the latter mode at the moment – and for obvious reasons. It is acting ‘yarkao’ while it is really trembling. We have certainly been here before.

When Musharraf’s coup d’état ended Pakistan’s second democratic experiment on 12 October 1999, Nawaz Sharif was widely held responsible for bringing it upon himself and upon the whole nation. Two years before the coup, Saeed Shafqat had outlined two contradictory tendencies in Pakistan’s political system in his excellent book, ‘Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan: From Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto’. According to Shafqat: “In the first, the primary objective was to curb participatory politics and to subordinate the political parties and other autonomous interest groups to military hegemony. …In the second instance, the primary concern was to subordinate the military bureaucratic elites to civilianed party dominance, and to build an alternative to military rule.”

Throughout 1990s, the PML-N had sought to establish single-party dominance in the country by taking a number of steps. It laid out an elaborate patronage network, never seen before in the country. This network turned agriculture-based and middle-class politicians into sugar barons and owners of textile mills. Civil services were systematically subordinated to the Sharif family, earning then services the name of Ittefaq Civil Services (ICS). The opposition, led by Benazir’s PPP, took the brunt of a no-holds-barred vilification campaign and dozens of trumped-up court cases. The sections of media that could not be bought was constantly harassed and intimidated. Some of the most senior journalists had to face treason charges for speaking against the government.

The 15th Amendment, popularly known as the Shariat Bill was meant to complete the process by turning Pakistan into a civilian dictatorship. The bill was passed by the National Assembly with a two-thirds majority and awaited adoption by the Senate where the PML-N lacked required numbers. However, this would not have taken long as the membership of the Senate was about to be reshuffled.

In the garb of Shariah, this bill was a formula for a totalitarian dictatorship. It empowered the prime minister to enforce what he thought was right and to prohibit what he considered was wrong in Islam and Shariah, irrespective of what the constitution or any judgment of the court said. This reform would have enabled the prime minister to interpret and apply the Shariah.

But all that was history we believed we had left behind. For more than a decade, we celebrated the transformation the PML-N had gone through. The party was no longer the anti-Bhutto platform that represented extreme right, anti-democratic, pro-establishment and pro-status quo sentiments. On returning, Nawaz Sharif had debunked the myth of the invincible dictator – and we loved him for that.

In 1999, the PML-N had been given the medicine that the PPP had tasted for decades. Exile gave the Sharifs some time to rethink basic questions of life and they came back as transformed individuals leading a transformed party. In May 2006, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto signed the historic Charter of Democracy, vowing to transform Pakistan’s political culture. The party moved to the centre, attracting support from both the right and the left of the divide.

But the honeymoon, it appears, is coming to an end. The PML-N is growing old fangs, or showing them after a long time. Though firmly in control of the ruling family, the party appears to work like a hydra. Its different heads do different things and speak different languages at the same time. This policy has two obvious advantages. First, the party can be everything to everyone, and so attract a larger following. Second, it can chop off a head or two if they wear out or become troublesome or are needed to be sacrificed to pacify some malignant force. We have seen many heads roll, starting with Javed Hashmi but certainly not ending at Pervaiz Rasheed and Tariq Fatemi. At the moment, its most venomous head appears to be in charge of the creature.

The PML-N is on a path to trample civil liberties and basic human rights. It has already intimidated, harassed and successfully silenced the civil society and its attention is now turning to ungoverned spaces in social media. Social media has proved a headache for the party due to an invincible army of trolls loyal to Imran Khan. It is also an occasion for the party to humour the establishment.

Like the good old days, the party is using religion and patriotism to initiate a witch hunt. Its gag order against social media users is a replay of the actions the party had taken against the Jang Group and the Friday Times in 1999. In this case, however, it is pitching the government against millions of innocent internet users by creating an environment of fear.

Unfortunately, the head that is leading the attack is too clever for its own good. The PML-N, it appears, is set to hang itself with an eighteen-year-old rope. The party has been able to retain its popularity during the last four years despite a virulent campaign by Imran Khan, targeting the ruling party with a narrative of runaway corruption. The PML-N’s development narrative appeared invincible at a time when the economy had taken a turn due to favourable international conditions.

However, the development narrative has an Achilles heel. It cannot withstand the rights narrative. The development narrative could not save colonial governments from freedom movements and it could not save Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf either. It will certainly not help the PML-N if the party is seen as trampling the rights of the common citizen. Imran Khan can be trusted not to do anything intelligent but the rights narrative can deliver him what the umpire could not.

As the PML-N comes close to completing its third tenure in government, it should do some soul searching. Despite being the longest ruling political party, the PML-N has no institutional or constitutional reforms to its credit. Almost all significant constitutional amendments were passed during the tenures of the maligned PPP including the constitution of Pakistan and the remarkable 18th Amendment to the constriction. The PML-N did join the effort to amend the constitution but it had its eyes on the clauses that it needed the most, particularly the one that allowed Nawaz Sharif to become prime minister for the third time.

Not only this. Almost all reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan and Fata were also adopted during PPP governments. Reforms in Fata were the first opportunity for the party to make a serious contribution to the country’s system of governance. However, it appears that this opportunity might be sacrificed to the short-sighted opportunism of our pious, patriotic ruling party that now needs to adopt Zaid Hamid’s headgear as its uniform.

According to a popular story, Mughal emperors used to have someone near them whisper “don’t be proud” into their ears. Luckily, we have Imran Khan to shout it loud to our ruling family. They deserve this man, don’t they?

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional. Email: zaighamkhan@yahoo.com Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Zaigham Khan, "Back to the good old days?," The News. 2017-05-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political crisis , Political aspects , Political parties , Civil-Military relations , Bureaucracy , Democracy , Economy , Imran Khan , PM Nawaz Sharif , Pakistan , PMLN , ICS , PPP