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March 11, 2018
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The marketplace of politics

Opinion

March 11, 2018

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Imagine political parties bidding for individual politicians in an open auction. The idea is borrowed from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) that is currently being played with such fanfare. And there was a time when cricket was a parable for playing fair.

We do have prominent players in the political arena who change sides for personal and possibly monetary reasons. Besides, we know how matches can be fixed. There are always those who pull the strings – or the rug – from under some player’s feet.

However, in a serious vein, it should be useful to assess the value of our leading politicians and the influence they carry in the present crisis of Pakistan. Unfortunately, our politics continues to be hinged on the charismatic authority of the top leader because of the weaknesses of our institutions. Still, the leading players do make a difference in how a party performs and is perceived by the people at large.

So, how should we evaluate the worth of, say, a Raza Rabbani or a Farhatullah Babar in the marketplace of politics? What do they add to the stature and the image of their party? These and many similar questions have arisen from this week’s political developments. The backdrop, of course, is the election of the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate after the induction of half of its members.

Mainly, the focus has been on Raza Rabbani, the outgoing chairman of the Upper House. He was the nominee of the Pakistan People’s Party to which he has belonged without any hint of infidelity or lack of passion. In fact, his performance as the chairman has been exemplary. It shines as a beacon in the sordid annals of our legislative history. In a rational assessment, he would be seen as a prized asset of a party that is direly in need of an ideological renewal.

Ah, but the party is firmly in the hands of Asif Ali Zardari. He knows more about the price of things than their value. That is how he has become such an accomplished wheeler and dealer. Irrespective of such commendable gestures as the choice of Krishna Kumari for a Senate seat, the PPP is apparently losing its sense of direction because of Zardari’s power politics. There is an impression that he has veered closer to the establishment as Imran Khan is seemingly losing his shine.

In this respect, we have to take the larger picture into account. The Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif is also ideologically challenged. It is in the process of an almost paradigmatic shift, with the former protege of the powers that be now becoming a proclaimed rebel. For the first time in Pakistan’s history, a leader who comes from central Punjab has shown such defiance. Equally unexpected is the popular response he has stirred. In the process, Maryam Nawaz has emerged as the successor of her father’s new stance, born of the political strife he has had to face recently. In any case, there are intimations here of the rise of another charismatic figure in Pakistan’s politics.

In the latest rally addressed by Nawaz Sharif, the tone has further stiffened. One headline on Saturday read: ‘I’m a rebel, ready to grab rights, says Nawaz’. This tempo has been picking up. But the tension inherent in the election for the Senate posts is likely to have some impact on how the game will proceed. We are approaching a more tumultuous phase in our politics. We cannot be sure if this summer’s national election will provide the necessary clarifications or that a new equilibrium will settle the present, potentially antagonistic, conflicts.

Meanwhile, we must contend with what has become a deep muddle of indecisive policies and faltering loyalties. For instance, Nawaz Sharif’s orthodox and rightist colleagues should not all be expected to have faith in the shift that is now taking place. This dilemma is partly personified by Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. That the party has held together so far only because of the demonstrable scope for success in the coming polls.

But this is not the promise that can soothe the nerves of the PPP supporters, at least not in Punjab. Their anxieties about the unscrupulous moves that Zardari has made could grow after the Raza Rabbani episode. The PPP has always had a committed band of leaders and workers, with a progressive bent of mind and a people-friendly approach to resolving national issues. It could have been Pakistan’s redemption. But Zardari’s leadership has led it into another direction.

When Nawaz Sharif suggested that Raza Rabbani should continue as the Senate chairman, Zardari summarily snubbed the idea. What made it worse was his later criticism of Raza Rabbani’s performance and the illusion that as the Senate chairman he had been partial towards Nawaz Sharif. Considering the respect that Raza Rabbani commands, this was taken as a nasty move by the sympathisers of the party and others who subscribe to the idea of parliamentary supremacy in a democratic dispensation.

One editorial comment said that, “the swiftness and brutality with which PPP supremo Asif Zardari has slapped down Mr Rabbani and his long-time personal spokesperson Mr Babar is stunning”. A measure of how it would divide the opinion within the party was the visit to Rabbani’s residence by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, nominally the chairman of the party, this past Friday evening. An attempt has openly been made to control the damage caused by Zardari’s unsavoury observations.

At the heart of all these wrangles, we know, is the seminal issue of the tussle that has developed between national institutions. In his farewell speech in the Senate, Farhatullah Babar was very candid about the respective positions of the de facto and the de jure powers in the country and the looming threat to democracy. His remarks were disowned by the party but will definitely figure in our parliamentary history.

These grim thoughts and the apprehensions they generate must be present to all our politicians. Consequently, they have to decide as to where they belong in this conflict. There are those who change parties for expediency. Others may want to do this for ideological reasons.

In that sense, Pakistan’s politics may benefit from a new alignment of different factions and ideological constituencies. There is ample space, vacated by the PPP, for a progressive agenda. But who can play the starring role in this venture?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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