In 1998, Nawaz Sharif tried to augment his powers as prime minister and perhaps subvert democracy when he tried to bring in the controversial Shariah bill or the 15th Amendment.
Had the bill been approved, it would have given extraordinary powers to Nawaz, helping him determine what was right or wrong and take other measures to ensure conformity with religious belief. Fortunately, at the time the Senate declined the bill, although the National Assembly where Sharif held a two-third majority had passed it. Sharif and the PML-N will also be remembered for the 1997 storming of the Supreme Court in Islamabad as then Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah heard a contempt of court petition against the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The incident is still recalled with horror.
In addition, the PML-N has often followed the policies of General Ziaul Haq, whose imposition of orthodox Islamic rule altered the country forever. The Punjab government’s recent ban on dance performances in both state-owned and private schools is being likened by many to the dress codes that were imposed on PTV employees during the Zia regime.
During the late 1990s, Nawaz Sharif attempted to throttle the press by acting against specific journalists and the publications they wrote for. He also banned the popular song ‘Ehtesaab’ by the rock band Junoon, perhaps because it raised the issue of accountability and corruption. Sharif’s exile in 1999, following the coup d’état by General (r) Pervez Musharraf also brought accusations of cowardice and the striking of an underhand deal brokered by the Saudis.
Nawaz is not a man whom we would expect to attain the status of a hero. But due to a variety of factors, he is now being seen as a martyr and a figure who stands for democracy. His protestations that he has been conspired against and wrongfully removed from the office of prime minister and the presidency of the PML-N are one of the prime reasons why people are sympathetic towards him. There are predictions that this wave of sympathy will translate into votes during the 2018 elections.
In many ways, it is the misfortune of our country that such people become heroes. This could have been avoided – and brought us many benefits – had the people been permitted to oust Nawaz Sharif on their own by using their votes against him. He would have gone down in history as a failed leader, setting an example for all other politicians. The same is, in many ways, true of Benazir Bhutto. Her assassination converted a leader whose governments did not enjoy the best records in terms of their ability to offer people what they needed into a martyr who will live on forever. The mistake that is being repeated is the effort to forcibly remove politicians from the field of play rather than leaving the decision in the hands of people. If people are able to decide, there can be no turning back of what they have expressed. This is the factor that can change Pakistan’s politics for the better.
We have had a few leaders who have been ousted because the people no longer want them to rule. The removal of such leaders by citizens can make a real difference to people’s understanding of politics, and also compel other politicians to avoid walking down the same path. For us, this could mean some easing of corruption and a greater will on the part of leaders to make some kind of difference in the lives of people who have voted them to power. The severing of the link between people and their political parties is a big factor for the dire straits we find ourselves in.
Despite all that has happened, all the acts of possible wrongdoing by the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam have assumed a position from which it could be difficult to bring them down. Elections can of course be fixed. This has happened before. Nawaz Sharif’s own party accepted gigantic sums of money in 1990 to help them win the 1990 elections. Other elections have been rigged through both the use of money and other means. But the task is becoming harder because the people are savvier. It is no longer easy to fool them, and sometimes all of us forget that all the people cannot be fooled all the time. People have begun to see through opaque panes and recognise what is happening. It is also true that they can be easily manipulated by politicians themselves. Over the years, as he developed into a more sophisticated politician than the young man General Zia had picked up for the role of leader as his puppet, Nawaz Sharif has learned how to manipulate people. Few suspected he would be able to stay afloat as the odds against him built up. But even with the PPP, the PTI and an array of other forces lined up against him, Nawaz has chosen to keep fighting. Perhaps he believes he has nothing to lose. This desperate struggle has turned him into a kind of knight in the eyes of people who continue to turn out in large numbers to attend his rallies. As we have seen in the past, charges of corruption rarely bring public disapproval for leaders.
It is certain that a balance needs to be created as we go into the 2018 elections. The PML-N, like all other parties taking part in the contest, should be judged on the basis of its performance and its manifesto rather than on the actions of a single man. This is now beginning to look even more difficult. We need to create equilibrium and to ensure that people realise the significance of the vote they cast, and that they have every right to vote for the party of their choice.
The problem right now is that there is some reluctance to criticise Nawaz Sharif openly on the basis that it is wrong to fling stones at a man who has already suffered many wounds. This may not carry much logic; but does have a sentimental value.
Other political parties that have lined up against the PML-N – forming unlikely and unprincipled alliances to do so – need to project their policies so as to attract electoral support. People should be able to recognise the advantages these parties could bring if elected. The PML-N too needs to focus on policy and not just on Nawaz Sharif and his daughter standing atop a burning ship.
It is vital that the question of what people need and what the region needs be added back into the political cooking pot. It has been removed for the moment and all we are left with is a set of accusations and counter accusations which really do more damage to people and our democracy than to any individual or a political party.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.