ISLAMABAD: Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s slip of the tongue about requesting the Taliban to spare the Punjab may have triggered graver concerns as to the inner thinking of the party supposedly in waiting to hold power in Islamabad. The changing style of Nawaz Sharif’s cult politics, the pointed-top organisational pyramid and his party’s ambivalent position on crucial issues like the growing religious militancy and terrorism, the security paradigm, economic revival, and stance towards the US, India and Afghanistan necessitates more explanations than are available from the second biggest party of Pakistan.

The PML-N offers a vague one-size-fits-all policy on most issues. The idea is to keep the mainstream swing voters in a flux and show the real teeth once the levers of power are in control. The same strategy is in practice within the party where nobody knows who is going to do what in a future power set-up. A deliberate chaos has been created where all PML-N leaders are saying all things to all people. The real position, if there is one, is only known to Nawaz Sharif.

The party is likely to perform better than its earlier governments, if their hopes of returning to power in Islamabad materialize, or definitely better than the PPP government. But the PML-N is far short of the nirvana its sympathisers are hoping it to deliver.

The PML-N, to be fair, has fought a historic fight and bounced back from a near oblivion to stake its claim for a third round of power in Islamabad. It seems to have learnt a few lessons this time around. There has not been a major corruption scandal against the party. The PML-N seems to have developed respect for public opinion as shown in the case of supporting the judiciary movement and also by sacking elected members when found on a wrong foot. It has supported a democratic continuity and has refrained from becoming a tool in the hands of the establishment to dislodge the PPP government in the Centre — even after the provocative dissolution of their government in the Punjab. The party took a firm stance against the Army’s involvement in politics and did not fall in line to please the Americans overly.

Nawaz Sharif stands taller as a political leader with his closest rivals, after Benazir’s assassination, placed at a distant second position. He has the longest tenure in power than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and even dictators Ayub, Zia and Musharraf. In his 27-year political career, he has been in power for 13 years — two years as Punjab minister, five years as Punjab chief minister and almost six years as twice prime minister.

Yet we still don’t know enough about him. What are his habits; his likes and dislikes? What does he read, if at all he does? There is more emphasis on his food habits than his mental and intellectual growth, particularly after his return from exile. What are his perceptions about the rapidly changing Pakistan and the world around him?

All we know is that Nawaz Sharif has been sucked into alarmingly dynastic politics of his family, his Kashmiri clan and few loyalists. The involvement of his family in politics and decision-making continues to grow.

First, it was just Nawaz Sharif. Then brother Shahbaz Sharif came along followed by Abbas Sharif, who did a stint as member of the National Assembly. There was always some issue about their late father Mian Sharif’s role as a guide from the back seat. Nawaz Sharif’s exile created a situation where his wife Kalsoom had to enter politics and exposed the next generation of the Sharifs to politics. Nawaz Sharif’s eldest Hussain was put in jail and younger Hassan had to travel all over the world for seeking help for the family.

The two brothers are out of active politics but son-in-law Safdar has entered the arena with an extra vigour. Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza learnt the ropes of politics through tough times in jail and has since joined active politics. His younger brother Salman is also politically ambitious and wants to join this charade of family grandees. Shahbaz Sharif’s third wife Tehmina Durrani, an author and an able person in her own right, is believed to be quite an influence on his political thinking. Ishaq Dar is also in the family after his son got married to Nawaz Sharif’s daughter.

If this jigsaw of family tree in politics was not enough, the involvement of the larger Kashmiri clan makes it more complicated. Kashmiris, they say, have a common grandmother. This web of distant relatives commands much more power than earlier, particularly in the central Punjab. MNA Khawaja Saad Rafiq is handy as a helping hand to manage Lahore and so are his MPA wife Asma and MPA brother Salman. Another Kashmiri Khawaja Ehsan is prominent all around and so are Sohail Zia Butt and his MNA son Omer in Lahore. Ghulam Dastgir and his MNA son Khurram oversee Gujranwala; Sher Ali and his MNA son Abid control Faisalabad, while Khawaja Asif is the ultimate authority in the affairs related to Sialkot — and much beyond.

It is widely believed in Lahore that if your name has a suffix of Kashmiri castes like Butt, Mir, Lone, Khawaja, Dar or Banday, you have a better chance of your grievance being addressed. The joke around town is that, like the clannish Chaudharies of Gujrat who tried to envision ‘Jattistan,’ the new move is to create the Islamic Republic of Butt-istan.

In the earlier PML phase, most political heavyweights like Gohar Ayub, Ejazul Haq, Majid Malik, Sheikh Rashid, Chaudhary Shujaat had grown in politics together with Nawaz Sharif. They had the collective weight to exercise more participation in decision-making. The crucial decision-making in the new PML-N is confined to a small number of close family members. The only outsiders with some weight are Chaudhary Nisar, Ahsan Iqbal and Pervaiz Rashid. All three of them have learnt the ways to survive in the dominant Kashmiri culture where food is discussed more than foreign policy.

Others like Raja Zafarul Haq, Zulfiqar Khosa, Tehmina Daultana, Mehtab Abbasi, Ghous Ali Shah are given lots of respect but this is more ceremonial than concrete. Everybody knows that Javed Hashmi is out of favours yet nobody talks about it. It is only in muted whispers that people will tell you that he was almost sold out to hijack PML while Nawaz Sharif was abroad. Everybody will deny this on record but it is obvious that he is given a cosmetic respect.

The ultimate decision making power, everybody agrees, is Nawaz Sharif. He forms an opinion by discussing things with the members of the family, clan and a handful of loyalists. A facade of consultation is devised where party elders are asked for their opinions. In nine cases out of 10, they try to give the opinion, which they think the great leader has already arrived at.

Nawaz Sharif then makes announcements, which are final. Nobody dares question his word and never in public. Welcome to democracy — the PML-N style.

To be continued

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Date: Saturday, March 27, 2010