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December 17, 2016

Punjab politics and Sharifs


December 17, 2016

Punjab, historically, lacks in producing leaders of national stature, which often come from the smaller provinces. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, despite being from Sindh, had emerged as the most prominent leader of Punjab. Sharifs entry into politics took place to counter the myth of Bhuttos and the PPP, with a difference that Sharifs belong to Punjab. Now, for the first time after 30 years, Sharifs have a challenger from within Punjab, Imran Khan, the man from Mianwali.

While Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is also fighting hard to regain Punjab and to pose itself as the real opposition than Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), it still appears as if the next elections would be quite challenging in the battle of Punjab.

Prior to Bhutto, the Punjab’s political leadership by and large remained proxy of the establishment while the strong leadership came from the then Bengal or East Pakistan, followed by leaders from the then North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) or Balochistan, like Khan Abdul Wali Khan, Maulana Mufti Mahmood, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, Mir Ghous Bux Bizenjo etc.

Pakistan Muslim League (PML), after the death of Quaid-e-Azam and Liaquat Ali Khan, divided into different factions as the leaders from Punjab could not counter the Bengali leadership of Muslim League like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.

What happened from 1948 to 1958 was disastrous for Pakistan and political failures, combined with civil-military bureaucracy conspiracy, led to the imposition of the first martial law in 1958, which through One Unit, laid the foundation of what happened in 1971.

When Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah challenged Ayub Khan in the Presidential election, she could only won from Karachi and Dhaka, while Punjab went with Ayub.

The 1970 elections was the turning point and Bhutto, after leaving Ayub’s cabinet, made his party, the PPP, which became the most popular party of Punjab within three years (1967-1970). He used nationalistic and anti-India slogan beside “Roti, Kapra and Makan”.

In the aftermath of break-up of Pakistan, Punjab’s political importance became the decisive factor in ruling Islamabad, which is still the key factor.

The Bhutto rule ended with the imposition of a martial law on July 5, 1977. Zia promised elections in 90 days, without knowing Bhutto was still popular in Sindh and Punjab, which led to election postponement. Later, Bhutto was hanged in a controversial trial and Zia never faced any serious challenge till his death in a plane crash on August 17, 1988.

In the post-Bhutto era, Punjab politics has revolved around Sharifs even when they were not in power. Nawaz Sharif created history in 2013 when he became the prime minister for the third time. While the duo – Nawaz and Shahbaz – rarely lost Punjab since 1985, will they be lucky this time in the aftermath of Panama Papers and the challenger from Mianwali, Imran Khan.

Historically, the remnant of the then Zia establishment, Sharif’s political career started with Tehrik-e-Istaqlal, which under the leadership of Air Marshal (retired) Asghar Khan was launched as an alternative to Bhutto and the PPP, to make inroads into Punjab.

Zia wanted someone from Punjab, preferably from central Punjab, who could not only counter the PPP but also emerge as a national leader. Zia knew that even after Bhutto’s hanging, his widow and daughter could create problems in his future game-plan.

Baray Mian Sahib was not interested in politics nor wanted his sons to join politics. But, he was anti-Bhutto because his factories had been nationalised by him during the PPP government. The issue was exploited by Zia, and a senior PPP leader revealed an interesting story of Nawaz Sharif’s entry into politics, first through the establishment and later on his own.

An unimpeachable PML source disclosed that Mian Nawaz Sharif, for the first time, was offered Ministry in Zia’s cabinet while he was the finance secretary of Tehrik-e-Istaqlal. But, the late Majeed Nizami, who convinced Mian Sharif to play a role in politics as Punjab lacked political leadership and as a businessman he could become a force against feudal-lords.

“One day Mr Wazir Ali, father of Shahnaz Wazir Ali, who was Tehrik-e-Istaqlal central leader, was sitting with Mian Sharif. Nawaz Sharif entered the room and Wazir Ali told him about the offer. He (Wazir) advised Nawaz not to join him as elections are due,” source said, adding that Sharif replied that he did see elections in near future.

“Few days later, Mian Sahib took the oath as sports minister,” source said.

Later, the establishment build Sharif’s political image but since political sentiments were high after Bhutto’s execution and Bhutto ladies were in exile, a Sindhi politician, Mohammad Khan Junejo was made the prime minister after non-party based elections.

Even a faction of Pakistanis left and the progressives also backed Sharif as they believed that through industrialization, feudalism would get weaker and pave the way for progressive politics and strengthen democracy.

Junejo lost Zia’s confidence after Geneva Accord, and the establishment got him sacked. This paved the way for Sharif to get control over Muslim League. It paid off with the support of General Zia and former ISI chief, Lt-Gen Hameed Gul.

Zia first held referendum in 1984 to get some legitimacy and later elections on non-party basis, in a bid to keep the PPP out of politics and secondly to have weak democratic system.

When Benazir decided to end her exile, Zia never thought she would get such a reception. It scared both Zia and Gul, and this led to the formation of Islami Jamoohri Ittehad (IJI) led by Nawaz Sharif.

After 1988, Sharifs never looked back and till 1990, Sharifs and the establishment were hand-in-glove against the PPP, to dissolve Bhutto’s myth. He was pitched against Benazir Bhutto as a national leader while he was the Punjab chief minister. Later, he was made President of the IJI, the brainchild of former ISI chief, Gen Hameed Gul.The first differences between Sharif and the establishment appeared when he did not back one of his mentors General Gul as the army chief.

However, credit goes to Sharif that he turned the PML, a traditionally pro-establishment party, into a political party and during nine years of General Musharraf resisted the establishment pressure.

Being a politician from Punjab, luck also favoured him time and again. But, experience and anti-establishment stance during Musharraf’s era also brought him and Benazir closer to an extent that they signed historic the Charter of Democracy in 2006.

Sharif was also lucky that in 1993 Supreme Court restored his government, which was dismissed on corruption charges, but in 1990 and 1996, it did not restore the PPP government sacked on the same charges. However, he remained unlucky that in 2001, the SC in Zafar Ali Shah case gave legitimacy to Musharraf’s coup.

Mian Sahib practically went unchallenged particularly in Punjab, before the rise of the man from Mianwali. It took him 20 years to get recognition as a national leader and that too from Punjab, despite having huge Pashtun following.

How far Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would make a dent in the strong constituency of powerful Sharifs inside Punjab, depends on the outcome of the Panama leaks. However, some senior PML-N leaders believe that even if decision goes against them, the party will sweep the polls and that too, through, Sharifs.

“In 2008 elections, when Mian Sahib was disqualified, we fought and won Punjab on Mian Sahib’s photograph. I am sure we will win the legal battle but are ready to accept any decision of the Supreme Court, and rest assured that the PML would not lose Punjab,” a senior PML-N leader told this writer on condition of anonymity.

National politics has now completely switched to Punjab, particularly after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, and the PPP could not regain Punjab. In fact in 2013, it completely lost the big province in a most humiliating manner.

Nevertheless, the rise of Imran Khan is considered by many political pundits as a good omen for Pakistan, for different reasons. In the absence of Benazir, the country needed an alternative political leader and ideally, someone from Punjab or at least having strong political base in Punjab, as it determines who would rule Pakistan.

Imran grabbed the political opportunity and exploited the PPP’s bad governance and Sharif’s corruption as burning issues. With his hero image and charisma, beside a tag of an untested leader with Lahore as his political base, helped him a great deal. Thus, the province which historically lacked in producing leaders of national stature now has a contest among the two prominent leaders from Lahore and Mianwali. Imran’s rise came as a result of continuity of democracy and if it continues, it may also break the strong biradri system in the province.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang. —Twitter: MazharAbbasGEO

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