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November 2, 2016

There is little difference


November 2, 2016


Even if we are fine otherwise in social situations, laidback and jovial, warm and friendly, inclusive and hospitable as people, when it comes to discussing political issues, we start thinking in pure binaries. Argumentative, irksome, jittery and snappy – this is what defines us as people when we enter into a political dialogue.

Some may be a little bearable but some have the capacity to take this attitude towards the other to new heights of intolerance. Whoever s/he is, we think the leader we support is the best woman or man ever born in this world and her/his politics is the best thing since sliced bread that humanity has experienced. The person is never at fault and must be defended come what may. It is mostly about the individual in Pakistan and less about a party or a movement, an institution or an organisation.

Let us discuss some of those who have captured people’s imagination the most over the past few decades and see where they have politically come from and what have they done in their careers. Please read the piece through as the attempt here is not to malign our popular politicians but to bring some balance and sanity into our understanding of politics, and why the system for institutionalisation should be supported instead of the blind following of individuals or believing in individuals as messiahs. I say that at the outset because the scathing emails sent to me are sometimes drafted only after reading the first couple of paragraphs.

Let me begin with the most important politician of Pakistan until now – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was a popular leader in the then West Pakistan and later Pakistan 40 odd years ago. He laid his life as a brave man fighting for the inalienable right of citizens to have a democratic dispensation, elected government, representative parliament and civilian supremacy. Bhutto still captures people’s imagination like no other for not only achieving something for the benefit of the poor and the disadvantaged but also bringing a transformational change in working people’s consciousness.

But Bhutto virtually began his career under the tutelage and patronage of Pakistan’s first martial law dictator, Gen Ayub Khan. He served as one of the youngest members of the general’s cabinet. Then he parted ways and founded his own party. He switched sides and rode the wave created by the left wing movement of the 1960s, with which he had little to do before. Once in power, he steered the process of promulgating a new constitution of the republic. But soon after, it was the parliament he dominated as its leader of the house that ex-communicated a group of Pakistani citizens. Under pressure from the right-wing opposition, he who was never hypocritical about enjoying his drink, introduced prohibition.

I can also argue that Pakistan’s security paradigm, for which the military is blamed solely by many, was in fact defined by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – from the ‘Crush India Movement’ to a nuclear and strategic weapons programme to a military operation in Balochistan to investing in an Islamic bloc and propagating the idea of an Ummah in the name of faith.

Benazir Bhutto, another popular leader, was given a hard time all through her career. She was not hypocritical and vindictive at all like her fellow men in the trade. She served as prime minister for three years even after being elected twice to full terms. She was also the only leading politician who did not work with any military dictator. But in order to make peace with the military establishment, she would not only let many things happen under her nose but would rather encourage things like first the active organisation and then full support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ruthless crackdown on political adversaries in Karachi.

During her second term, after being bitten by the establishment-sponsored and resourced opposition alliance of the IJI in 1990s, she is accused of letting corrupt financial practices undertaken by her family and party to consolidate their political power. However, she was never allowed to function – leave alone consolidate her power – and suffered personally and politically for decades until she was assassinated.

Nawaz Sharif is the incumbent prime minister and head of the PML-N. Not only for his own supporters but many independent thinking commentators, Sharif is now a symbol of democratic rule, for people’s will being respected when he serves as the prime minister, for economic growth through various development initiatives in infrastructure and commerce and for leading a government that fights against terrorism. He is undoubtedly a popular leader. But he who is now seen as a democrat, the rightful representative of the majority of electorate, someone who has the gall to say in this deeply divided society that he is as much the prime minister of Pakistani Hindus and Christians as he is of Muslims, was once the symbol of martial rule and bigotry.

Sharif began his political career under Gen Ziaul Haq as a provincial minister in Punjab. He rose to become the chief minister in some years and refused to receive or greet the elected prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, in 1989. It is ironic that 20 years later Sharif had to sign a charter with the same woman for protecting democracy in Pakistan. He was the first person among the major politicians to reach the hospital after receiving the news of Benazir’s assassination. Now he distances himself from his association with Gen Ziaul Haq – the worst military dictator Pakistan has seen. But until 1996, Nawaz Sharif publicly professed that he wanted to realise Zia’s vision of Pakistan.

Altaf Hussain has been a popular leader in Karachi and Hyderabad with pockets of support elsewhere. Many see him today as a secular, anti-extremism voice and a victim of state discrimination – making no one less than Asma Jahangir advocating his right to make political speeches. He was also a direct product of Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime like the Sharifs. The terror and violence that were unleashed by Hussain and his political movement on Karachiites, in particular, and people from other parts of Sindh in general are incomparable to any party or movement resorting to violence in Pakistan’s history.

Finally, let us come to the latest fad in our politics, particularly for a section of upper and middle class Pakistanis including those working with civil and military institutions, private sector and media. Imran Khan is seen as the most sincere and upright politician by some who believe that he will change the way Pakistan works. Maybe Khan is as sincere as he is portrayed. But like any saint, he also has a past that cannot be overlooked. Khan’s party came about in the late 1990s. He had people like Maj Gen (r) Mujeebur Rehman, the information minister under Gen Zia, supporting the process of drafting of the first political manifesto. Then Khan decided to support Gen Musharraf in his referendum. His party comrade, Abdul Sattar, became Musharraf’s foreign minister. He had full support of the establishment when he won the lone seat from Mianwali in 2002 elections. He switched sides soon after.

But then he started supporting the Taliban and campaigned for long that this war against terrorism is not our war. In fact, I would have respected him more if he would say the same now. But he stopped saying it after the military clearly changed its stance. Now Imran Khan wants to create a new Pakistan with his team which has included former ministers of martial law governments and those who have served in Nawaz Sharif’s and Yousaf Raza Gilani’s cabinets, political discards, real-estate encroachers, most conservative tribal chieftains and until recently clerics like Mufti Abdul Qavi. Some key members of his team are considered equally corrupt and expedient as those working with other parties.

Therefore, simply put, it is not and should not be about individuals. They are largely the same. It is only through a continuous democratic process that workers and leaders learn – like Sharif did or Imran will. It is only through democracy that institutions will be made to respect each other’s jurisdictions and society will mature and prosper. There is no shortcut. Period.

Email: [email protected]

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.