Dynastic politics in South Asia —III

May 22, 2022

Sharifs relied on the establishment’s support not only for the acquisition of power but also for its sustenance

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ne of the penalties for refusing to participate in the politics is that you end up being ruled by your inferiors — Plato

It is important here to mention the striking difference between Rajapaksas and Sharifs. The former made headway in the world of politics by dint of personal charisma and engagement with the electorate, particularly at the start of their careers. Mahinda’s father, too, was a politician. He capitalised on the political legacy bequeathed to him. His rise to political prominence was not credited to a nexus with the establishment. It was people’s politics that became an instrument for Mahinda’s rise to power.

Sharifs, on the other hand, lacked these assets. Nawaz Sharif claimed no political legacy and hardly had the oratory skills to inspire the masses.

Having a limited attention-span and averse to reading files, Nawaz Sharif was severely handicapped. Yet he was ambitious. With the passage of time, his patience for dissent wore off. This is an ominous sign for anyone claiming to be a democrat.

In his formative years in politics, his father was the greatest asset for Nawaz Sharif. He stage-managed most of Nawaz’s political manoeuvers and acted as a rudder and anchor. Mian Muhammad Sharif was endowed with sagacity, foresight and a cool temper (that both Nawaz and Shahbaz lacked). A few civil servants, including Anwar Zahid and Pervez Masud worked to rein in his ambition but their efforts had only temporary effect.

The Sharifs relied on the establishment’s support not only for the acquisition of power but also for its sustenance. They focused on how they should approach people with power and cultivate connections with them. In this they had a measure of success. Nawaz’s detractors keep coming up with snide allusions about him being a spiritual (political) son of Gen Ziaul Haq. Few people in Pakistani politics have resisted the temptation to accept pricy gifts, like a BMW car that Sharifs were very munificent in offering. Late Gen Asif Nawaz famously surprised Sharifs by refusing one.

Investing in contacts with powerful persons was their approach while Mian Muhammad Sharif was active. In jocular terms he was referred to as the Abba ji factor in Pakistani politics (of the 1990s). It is noteworthy that the establishment adopted Nawaz Sharif as its protege against the charismatic and politically astute Benazir Bhutto.

Many analysts consider her a beneficiary of her father’s political legacy, which was very powerful. That is just half the truth. For years, the establishment kept hounding her because she was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter. Elections were managed to the benefit of Nawaz Sharif. It was later found out that even public money was made available to him surreptitiously.

Air Marshal Asghar Khan filed a petition in the Supreme Court in this regard but nothing came of it. No such facility was accorded to Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka. Sharif was also accused of receiving money from Osama bin Laden in support of his election campaign against Benazir Bhutto.

In the year 1990, Shahbaz Sharif stepped into the world of practical politics. He had already been stage-managing things. “Ostentation incarnate” is how he is described by some people who know him from close quarters. Like his older brother, modesty is not one of his strengths.

As an administrator, he favoured mega-projects over substantive reform. Educational reforms and improvement in healthcare were never his priorities. At the time he entered the realm of politics the politics of patronage had reached its acme, particularly in the Punjab. People professing their loyalty to the Sharifs were doled out favours.

Dynastic politics and the politics of patronage go hand in hand. When politics of patronage prevails, merit does not count for much. In such circumstances, rule of law is the biggest casualty. Once sequestered from morality, politics is reduced to a hunger for power and all mechanism to stall corrupt practices fall apart. That happened in Pakistan under the Sharifs. Social development came to a grinding halt.

A big opportunity for Shahbaz Sharif came when he was made the chief minister of the Punjab after the PML-N won a convincing victory in the 1997 elections. There is no other instance in the history of Pakistan of an older brother serving as prime minister and a younger one as chief minister of the biggest province of the country.

In 1997, their third brother, the Abbas Sharif, too contested election and won a National Assembly seat. In awarding party tickets, close relatives and to members of the clan were always preferred. Lucrative positions in administration too were reserved for those having blood relations with the Sharifs. Even if some important members of the family had no official status, they had the gumption to interfere in the administrative business.

The important portfolio of finance was given to Ishaq Dar on account of his close relationship to Nawaz Sharif. Abid Sher Ali was another example of this. Now the second generation of the Sharifs has entered politics. Hamza Shahbaz has been in politics for a considerable period of time but still needs grooming. The same holds for Maryam Nawaz. They can be great assets for national politics if they take a fresh start and move away from the dynastic mode. Can they be persuaded to take the giant step? That indeed is a serious question.


The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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