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September 17, 2017



In the mirror of NA-120


Hold your breath while voters in a Lahore constituency elect their candidate in a by-election that, in the words of The Washington Post headline, “plays into larger struggle for democracy”.

But will an impressive win by Nawaz Sharif’s party in today’s electoral encounter serve as a vindication of Pakistan’s fitful pursuit of a genuine democratic dispensation? What will change after the counting of votes is over later this evening?

This by-election is crucial in many different ways. At one level, it has been built up as a tussle between the authority of the superior judiciary and the power of the people’s formal mandate. However, the manner in which Nawaz Sharif was disqualified and his family indicted has confused the minds of most observers.

Then, there is this vicious polarisation in our politics. It becomes difficult to make sense of the fundamental issues that are at stake in such a feverish environment. We also have to carry the burden of a low political culture where ordinary people are unable to grasp the reality of a situation in the context of their own vested interests.

I had an occasion to take a long walk in the NA-120 precinct last Sunday evening during a short visit to Lahore. It was possible to make casual conversations with strangers. Obviously, personalities and not issues are the dominant point of reference. Yes, many of them do not readily proclaim their political affiliation. But I could see that it is very much a Sharif territory as its electoral history would confirm.

Still, one measure of the significance of today’s by-election is the acrimony that is invested in it by the political adversaries of the PML-N. The lead player in this spectacle, of course, is Imran Khan. He is the rising star on our political horizon and the PTI candidate here had done quite well in the 2013 general elections.

A report of a press conference Imran Khan held with Dr Tahirul Qadri in Lahore on Thursday stated that both the leaders described the by-election as “a battle between good and evil”. If only it were easy to draw a line and choose sides with some confidence in the validity of the existing political process. It is argued that today’s electoral outcome will set the trend for next year’s general elections. But doubts linger about the supremacy of the democratic institutions in the near future.

There are intimations of this uncertainty in the proceedings that take place in the higher courts of the country. The timing seemed a bit odious but on Friday – almost on the eve of the by-election in which PML-N has founded its campaign on its rejection of the judicial ouster of the former prime minister – the Supreme Court rejected the review petitions of Nawaz Sharif and other members of his family.

Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who headed a five-judge larger bench that took up the review petitions, said: “For reasons to be recorded later, all these review petitions are dismissed”. This is what was expected. Justice Khosa had also led the larger bench that had disqualified Nawaz Sharif in its judgment announced on July 28. The former prime minister was found guilty of not being ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’.

Apart from misgivings about the selectivity of this verdict on the moral conduct of a political leader, the abrasive expulsion of a politician who was elected as the leader of the House for the third time has provided an edge to the eternal question of corruption in high places – mainly by politicians. And no one knows how this cancerous growth can be removed and who will hold the scalpel. Corruption has generally been the excuse for the removal of civilian governments by the military and there is this awkward and painful fact that no prime minister in our history has completed his or her constitutional term in office.

At the same time, the waywardness of our political leaders – significantly in the financial domain – cannot be condoned. In addition, their penchant for showing off their wealth is unbounded. Just look at the houses in which the leaders of our three major parties live. Yet, they invoke the poverty and the misery of the people and make promises that are patently unrealistic.

Perhaps I have strayed too far in the mirror of today’s by-election. The excitement it has generated should not allow such digressions. But the gravity of the overall situation is embedded in this test of the popular acceptance of Nawaz Sharif and his party after the Panama case judgment. Hence the importance of the gain that the PML-N can show with reference to the vote count in 2013.

There are always some dark thoughts about the game plan that may have been drafted somewhere. I find myself quite inadequate on this front to be able to offer any interpretation. So I looked at the latest monthly monitor on civil-military relations compiled by the independent think tank Pildat. The August monitor was released on Friday.

Let me just give you a hint as to what it includes. Its first item relates to a press conference by DG ISPR Major-Gen Asif Ghafoor in which he dismissed the notion of any civil-military divide in Pakistan. Another report is about a Senate session in which chairman Raza Rabbani called for an “inter-institutional” dialogue. Responding to this, the DG ISPR said that the Pakistan Army could be a part of this dialogue if the government wants to have a “grand dialogue”. 

Pildat has noted that COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa “seems to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor in the field of diplomacy as he interacts with foreign ambassadors and visiting dignitaries”.

To conclude, I have this paragraph on Asma Jahangir’s objection to the inclusion of the military in the JIT of the Panama case: ”While Pildat reported in its monitor of July 2017 that the international media largely implied that the disqualification of Mr Nawaz Sharif was a result of covert military influence, former president of Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan Asma Jahangir offered scathing criticism on the role of judiciary in including representatives of the military in the [JIT] formed under the Panama case”.

There is more, including an appreciation of the fact that newly-elected Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi held three meetings of the National Security Committee in August. But we do not know how the future course of action is being drafted and if the party of Nawaz Sharif, which is still in power, is firmly in the driving seat. Will its grip on power strengthen or weaken after today’s by-election?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]