Monday June 17, 2024

A land of ladlas

In the political context, a ladla is one who gets preferential treatment or undue favours from the people or institutions that matter

By Hussain H Zaidi
January 05, 2024
Pakistani security and media officials gather in front of the Parliament House building in Islamabad. — AFP/File
Pakistani security and media officials gather in front of the Parliament House building in Islamabad. — AFP/File

Arguably, the most commonly used disparaging word in the political lexicon of the day is ‘ladla’ -- loosely translated as the apple of one’s eye.

In the political context, a ladla is one who gets preferential treatment or undue favours from the people or institutions that matter. Although, in the political realm, the word ladla has gained wide currency only in recent years – previously the sobriquet ‘blue-eyed boy’ was in vogue – it is strongly embedded in Pakistani culture.

As a rule, every household has a ladla, or a ladli in the case of a woman. In a patriarchal society like Pakistan’s, people by and large prefer to have male children. If a family has two or more daughters but is blessed with only one son, the latter will be ascribed the status of the ladla as a matter of right. In some cases, where a family has only one girl among two or more male children, the former may be treated as the ladli.

Gender, however, is not the only basis for being the ladla or ladli. Parents with two or more sons or daughters may show greater indulgence towards one of them for one reason or another. At times, a household may have two ladlas, either being the favourite of one of the parents.

In any case, the ladla gets preferential treatment at home relative to the resources. In a typical lower middle-class family, the ladla, compared with his siblings, may be given better or more food, clothes or accessories; will be enrolled in a higher quality school; given greater leeway in pursuing his interests; and shown overall greater indulgence by the parents, who are willing to wink at or forgive his inappropriate behaviour while enforcing iron-clad discipline on their other children. When grown up, the ladla may be allowed to marry the girl of his choice. In the case of a wealthier household, he will get a greater share in the patrimony or a better position in the family business.

Although parents generally don’t admit that they have chosen one of their children as the ladla, everyone in the house knows this. This is the hallmark of special or preferential treatment. It’s always visible; it can’t be covered up. Those who are its beneficiaries are aware of it and behave true to their status, often going over the line and getting away with it, leaving others initially gobsmacked and later with a burning heart. There’s an old proverb, ‘Ishq aur mushk chupe nahi chupte’ (Love and fragrance can’t be concealed). To these, one may add ‘lad’ (indulgence).

For all the surprises and heartburn, those doing the indulgence as well as its beneficiaries see nothing wrong in it; instead, they deem such treatment well-deserved.

Like homes, offices have their ladlas as well. Performance is seldom a criterion. The gift of the gab, charm, or personal (including ethnic, regional and sectarian, etc) affinities often underpin the ladla status. An otherwise stern disciplinarian or a hard taskmaster would show visible tolerance towards his or her ladla subordinate for their acts of omission or commission or demonstrate favours in apportioning rewards, leaving others high and dry.

Let’s go back to politics. In recent years, the epithet ‘ladla’ has largely, if not exclusively, been associated with PTI supremo Imran Khan. His rivals and critics allege that the ‘exceptional’ treatment he has received from two powerful institutions, not to speak of the media, is an unmistakable sign of his being the chosen one. While such allegations carry weight, among contemporary politicians, Khan wasn’t the first to receive this ladla-like treatment.

During the 1980s, Nawaz Sharif was the undisputed ladla – though he was seldom given that sobriquet – of the regime. His rise in the political arena and subsequently to the highest political office of the land was carefully choreographed until the impulse to break free made him lock horns with his mentors.

Nevertheless, when his government was sacked in 1993, it was reinstated by the apex court, which earlier in 1990 had upheld the dismissal of his arch-rival Benazir Bhutto on similar grounds. The reinstatement signified that all was not lost for Sharif. Although Sharif was forced to step down a few months later, he was back in the saddle in 1997 with an absolute majority.

It was during his second term that Sharif forced the president, the chief justice of Pakistan, and finally the army chief to quit one after the other, establishing himself as the country’s most powerful elected leader ever – apparently even bigger than the institutions that had scripted or aided his meticulous rise. But just when he’d appeared invincible, he was booted out in a coup. To many, his fall marked the end of his ladla status.

Benazir Bhutto on her part tried her best to enter the ladla club. She played ball with president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, an arch establishmentarian, in bringing down Sharif in 1993 and winning a second term as prime minister. Years later, she successfully negotiated a power deal with military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. However, that coveted status remained a pot of gold for her, as it has remained for her successors in the PPP. If the ladla status could be achieved by hard work, the PPP leadership, past and present, would be more deserving than the rest. However, the coveted status is bestowed rather than earned.

The position of the ladla remained vacant for years until the arrival of Imran Khan. Yes, between Sharif and Khan there were some blue-eyed boys, such as MQM founder Altaf Hussain, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, and Sheikh Rashid of Rawalpindi. The last mentioned would swaggeringly parade his status until he was made to carry out a ‘chillah’. Yet none of them could be called a ladla considering the unique connotations of the term.

Enter Imran Khan. With the exception of Nawaz Sharif, destiny has seldom been as gracious to any other political figure as it has been to the cricketer-turned-politician. Influential politicians -- the electables -- were made to join him in droves, while his major rivals were ousted from the political arena. Thus, in the 2018 elections, Khan stood before an open goalpost. All he had to do was net the ball.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Premier Khan commanded unequivocal support of the people and the institutions that mattered, while the opposition was left fending for survival. He was unmistakably the new ladla. The ladla status, however, isn’t for life. Whether it’s parents or mentors, their indulgence isn’t unlimited. Khan thought otherwise, which undid him.

Even after his ouster and for all his rants and crossing the red lines now and then, Khan has been treated with exceptional consideration. Any other politician would have paid a much heavier price. It seems love for him still lurks in some hearts. Hence, as the country braces for the upcoming polls, no party faces an open goalpost, unlike in 2018.

Is Khan still a ladla? Or has Sharif regained the ladla status? The answer in both cases is in the negative: Complete trust of the mentors is the necessary condition for being a ladla. Once broken, it can never be repaired. While Khan may return to power, no matter how hard he may strive to woo the mentors, he will be looked upon with some suspicion, as was the case with Sharif when he became the PM for the third term. Gone are the days of absolute trust in him.

But there’s no reason to assume that Khan was the last ladla. Given the nation’s cultural ethos, a new ladla will be unveiled sooner or later. Let’s wait for that lady or gentleman with bated breath.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets/posts @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: