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February 5, 2018

Nehal Hashmi and the battle of narratives


February 5, 2018

Seven months ago, Nehal Hashmi’s foul mouthed speech against the judiciary brought the PML-N into disrepute; but Hashmi’s conviction by the Supreme Court last week has proved a godsend for the party. When Hashmi’s speech found its way to the internet last May, the PML-N was forced to disown him immediately. After his conviction, the party has adopted him as its martyr. In the context of the PML-N’s new narrative, Hashmi is no more a liability but an asset.

This PML-N’s new virulent narrative pitches the party against the institutions of accountability. It has already dominated the political discourse, superseding Imran Khan’s narrative of corruption which appears to have run its course. It is almost certain that this narrative will dominate the next election, at least in Punjab’s crucial battleground.

In the absence of ideologies and programmes, narratives serve as the main battlefield weapons of political parties. These weapons become critical in the prelude to elections. When democracy was revived after the 2008 elections, both the PML-N and the PTI employed the narrative of corruption against the ruling PPP. For the PML-N, it was the narrative of the clean Muslim League versus the corrupt PPP. We remember how Shahbaz Sharif used to threaten that he would disembowel Asif Ali Zardari to take the plundered money out of the vaults of his digestive system.

For the PTI, it was the narrative of the clean Imran Khan versus the corrupt Pakistan. In this narrative, he was the only surviving specimen of honesty in South Asia, and therefore Pakistan’s last hope. It was a narrative that circled around his personality cult. As the world sank into financial crisis, petrol prices skyrocketed and two floods played havoc in the country, Asif Zardari’s corruption was linked to all the problems faced by Pakistan.

After forming government in 2013, the Muslim League itself became the target of the corruption narrative. Imran Khan saw value in his narrative as his popularity rose spectacularly and he gained considerable electoral gains. He now tried to portray Nawaz Sharif as another Zardari. Committed to overthrowing the Sharif government, he tried to stir a popular uprising and appealed to the umpire to support him.

The PML-N responded with a new narrative of a pro-development PML-N versus an anti-development PTI. This was helped by economic recovery backed by improved security and falling oil prices. Inflation remained low and growth picked up. As people were starved of good news, this narrative infused positive energy and an element of celebration into the political arena. By-elections, local government elections and survey after survey showed that the PTI had not been able to gain new ground despite Imran Khan’s relentless political rallies and agitation.

The Panama case was supposed to change it all. The ruling family had to become accountable for the capital stashed in offshore companies. As institutions of accountability – including NAB, FBR, SECP and the State Bank – failed and parliament could not find a way out to the crisis, the case ended up in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court as we know is not a trial court. Nawaz Sharif was sent home because he was not found to be sadiq and ameen. This was the point when we should have witnessed a stampede out of the PML-N. Both the party’s electables and its voters should have left the party in droves out of disgust. This is something many people are still waiting for to

happen, and who knows it may happen as well.

Perhaps it was the nature of verdict, the way the proceedings were carried out and Imran Khan’s politics that saved the day for Nawaz Sharif. It awakened the political animal within him and gave him a chance to appeal directly to his voters. The new belligerent Nawaz Sharif sacred many people within the party. We know that you do not join the PML-N, or any other party for that matter, to land in prison.

As this stage, the Muslim League was split into two parts – or so it seems. It can also be seen as a clever strategy. Perhaps, it was not thought out as a clever strategy but it turned out that way. The Shahbaz camp adopted a conciliatory attitude and continued with the development narrative. It helped keep the jittery electables from changing stables. After all, Shahbaz Sharif was portrayed as an acceptable alternative to Nawaz Sharif. Many enemies, in their wisdom, tried to play Shahbaz against Nawaz and thus helped this outcome. It has also helped the PML-N continue its governments without getting into a major institutional crisis.

Nawaz Sharif, on the other hand, has devised a narrative of a victimised political leader. Going by his public engagement, this has found resonance with his followers and saved him from turning into a disgraced former political leader. ‘His faction’ of the party has used this narrative to engage Imran Khan on his battleground by portraying him as a secondary player. In fact, Imran Khan has been forced to confront Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s narrative. The opposition like political activity based on this narrative has helped the PML-N in keep its popular support base intact.

If our lords had a sagacious adviser like yours truly, they would be advised to keep their poise and let politicians fight it out. There is too much mud flying around the political arena. The robes of justice should not attract a single speck. Our lords, however, deemed it wise to adopt a hands-on approach.

First, the chief justice of Pakistan went on a charm offensive. He declared himself the Babaji of the village, someone who dispenses justice in the village (we know that village babas’ scales are often tilted in favour of their own). As the limitations of the charm offensive have become clear, it appears that the honourable judges have decided to make the loudmouthed leaders of the PML-N accountable. Nehal Hashmi has now been arrested and two more leaders, Talal Chaudhry and Daniyal Aziz, are also in trouble.

In fact, these actions are grist to the mill of Nawaz Sharif’s narrative. Parallels are being drawn with other cases where other honourable judges had taken a lenient position. Imran Khan, for example, was ignored, when he blamed the higher judiciary of rigging elections. The accusation came with elaborate details and it was the whole judiciary that had been brought into disrepute. He had even mentioned dates when the then chief justice of Pakistan had apparently called a meeting to assign the work of rigging to the district judges who were supervising the elections.

And soon after the Nehal Hashmi verdict, a video clip of Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi went viral; the video contains expletives against the honourable judges, delivered in his inimitable Punjabi diction.

Will the honourable judges be able to apply uniformly the principle of contempt of court? Can the honourable judges run after every loud-mouth or slap every naughty boy making faces? As Gandhi once said, “They cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.”

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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