Politics of exclusion

September 18, 2022

PTI chief Imran Khan claims that a ‘minus-one’ formula is being invoked to exclude him from politics

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hen in power, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan initiated a string of legal cases against his political opponents, including Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman and Shahbaz Sharif, to seek their disqualification and eventual exclusion from politics.

Ironically, Khan is now complaining that a ‘minus-one’ formula is being used against him. He has started ‘anti-minus-one formula’ rallies in various cities to muster support against such a move. Apparently what goes around comes around.

All political parties and state institutions must remember, however, that barring popular leaders from electoral politics has never served the purpose.

On September 9, Khan, known for his political U-turns and controversial remarks, said that the “imported government and its handlers” were working on a minus-one formula to oust him from politics. His statement came a day after the Islamabad High Court (IHC) announced its decision to indict him in a contempt of court case for threatening a woman judge. The same evening, several PTI stalwarts announced countrywide protests on September 10. They urged people to take to the streets to express solidarity with Khan.

The PTI chairman, in his subsequent speeches, urged his supporters to get ready for the next long march against the ‘conspiracy’ to expel him from politics. Interestingly, as prime minister, he had tried his best to apply a similar formula against the leaders of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), but failed.

A fact Khan and his followers can take heart from is that the minus-one formula has never worked in Pakistan. Whenever such a strategy was followed, the consequences were altogether different from those desired by its authors.

Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the fifth prime minister of Pakistan (1956-57) was the first victim of a minus-one-formula. Gen Ayub Khan got him arrested and disqualified to hold any public office under the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO) in 1958. After his disqualification, his party Awami Muslim League became Awami League. His successor, Shaikh Mujeeb, led the League to an overwhelming electoral victory and secession of East Pakistan. Many Pakistani scholars have counted Suharwardy’s disqualification among factors in the tragedy.

The second precedent was a more gruesome one. It has also been called ‘judicial murder’ of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto under Gen Zia’s martial law regime. Bhutto’s government was toppled in a military coup. He was later arrested and charged with murder. Gen Zia had apparently believed that he had buried Bhutto’s politics and popularity with him. However, PPP activists still chant slogans of Zinda hai Bhutto zinda hay (Bhutto is alive). Bhutto has since been a symbol of resistance to tyranny. Many who had opposed him in his life, now call him a shaheed. So do Imran Khan himself, Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif.

Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the fifth prime minister of Pakistan (1956-57) was the first victim of the minus-one-formula. Gen Ayub Khan had him arrested and disqualified from holding any public office under the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO) in 1958.

Sharifs and Khan were once known for their proximity to Gen Zia. Khan had announced retirement from cricket in 1987. However, Gen Zia persuaded him to take back his decision and continue to skipper the national team. Zia had also appointed Nawaz Sharif a provincial minister in 1983.

Bhutto’s party, the PPP still rules the country as a component of the ruling coalition under Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The PPP also has the provincial government of Sindh for a consecutive third term.

The third time, such exclusion was attempted was when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari were convicted by Justice Malik Qayyum of the Lahore High Court’s Ehtesab (accountability) Bench on corruption charges in April 1999. The court ordered the couple’s disqualification and confiscation of their property besides imprisonment and fine. Bhutto was on a foreign visit then. Zardari was in a jail when the sentence was announced.

Later, an audio recording, revealed that the then chairman of Ehtesab Bureau, Saifur Rehman had directed the judge to convict the two and award them the maximum punishment. The conviction (later set aside by a court) made no difference as the PPP still polled the largest share of votes in the 2002 general election.

In 2008, the PPP won the general elections after Benazir’s death in a suicide attack during an election rally. Yousaf Raza Gillani became the prime minister. Subsequently, Asif Zardari became the president of Pakistan. However, he allowed the presidential powers to be ceded to the parliament through the constitutional amendments.

Benazir is still relevant in national politics. Her followers still shout ‘Prime Minister Benazir’ and ‘Zinda hai Bibi Zinda hai’. Her son Bilawal is currently the foreign minister.

The minus-one formula was also applied against Nawaz Sharif. His government was toppled in a military coup on October 12, 1999. The deposed prime minister and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, then Punjab chief minister and other party stalwarts were arrested. On April 6, 2000, an anti-terrorism court in Karachi awarded a life sentence to Sharif. It acquitted all co-accused in the case. The Sindh High Court upheld the sentence after Musharraf government filed an appeal, demanding a death sentence for Sharif.

However, he was given the presidential pardon after an alleged deal with Gen Musharraf. Sharif and his family went to Saudi Arabia. In the 2002 elections, Sharif’s party faced a serious setback after a large number of big wigs joined the king’s party, called the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid. However, his party still managed to secure some seats in the National Assembly and Punjab Assembly. Sharifs ended their exile in 2007 and returned home. In 2008, the PML-N emerged as the second largest party and formed a coalition government with the PPP at the federal and Punjab levels.

Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister in 2013 after his party swept the general elections. On July 28, 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Sharif for not declaring his salary ‘income’ from a company owned by his son Hussain Nawaz. On April 13, 2018, the SC banned Sharif from holding any political office. On July 6, 2018, when Sharif was in London for the treatment of his ailing wife, an accountability court convicted him in a corruption case and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Leaving his wife on a ventilator, Sharif returned and was taken into custody and sent to jail. On November 19, 2019, Sharif was sent abroad on a court order for his medical treatment. He can apparently take no part in politics. But, the fact of the matter is that his brother Shahbaz Sharif is the prime minister and his daughter Maryam Nawaz the main crowd-puller for the PML-N. He still controls the party.

Khan must heed the lesson from the political history of Pakistan: exclusion strategies get blunted against political leaders recognised by the masses as those who have served them.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at BukhariMubasher

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