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April 15, 2018

A bonfire of betrayals


April 15, 2018

Now that Nawaz Sharif, after the landmark verdict that the Supreme Court delivered on Friday, is ineligible to hold public office for life, the clouds hovering over his party seem to have darkened. But this was not entirely unexpected.

It synchronises perfectly with his original disqualification as the prime minister of Pakistan on July 28 last year in the Panama Papers case.

In fact, some other developments are more ominous in the context of how the political pack is shaping up. After a few carefully staggered defections, there was almost an eruption on Monday when as many as eight lawmakers of the party from southern Punjab – six MNAs and two MPAs – parted ways with Nawaz Sharif.

Actually, two members of the Punjab Assembly from Sheikhupura also left the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz on the same day, taking the tally into double figures. Observers were quick to draw the inference that the stage is set for a hung parliament.

But the eight defectors, who belong to southern Punjab, did not simultaneously walk into another party – as is the standard practice. Instead, they announced the formation of the Janoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz. The creation of a new province was their “one-point agenda”. Consequently, a demand that has been on the table for a long time has stirred things up at a critical moment, with the 2018 general elections just around the corner.

One aspect of this crucial move on the political chessboard is to measure the damage that it may cause, separately, to the PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. However, the pace of events suggests that some more surprises are still in the offing. What you see clearly, though, is that the dice are loaded against Nawaz Sharif and his party. As a result, the big question is whether the PML-N will be able to raise an electoral tide in Punjab to confront its formidable adversaries.

There is ample evidence to show that Nawaz Sharif’s defiant stance has yielded political dividends. In this process, Maryam Nawaz has made her mark. Besides, Shahbaz Sharif has to have a starring role in the campaign, perhaps with a separate script. The task ahead is, therefore, quite tricky. This is going to be a long, hot summer.

If it means anything, Marriyum Aurangzeb, who is the minister of state for information, was quite strident in the remarks she made shortly after Friday’s verdict was announced.

But conspiratorial undertones were more apparent in the defection of eight legislators from southern Punjab as a group. In a press conference in Lahore, Khusro Bakhtiar, who led the group, said that they had been in contact with more than 20 legislators who might also join the group. This means that a great deal of planning and thought has been invested in this stunning initiative.

Monday’s defections readily prompted the party’s president, Shahbaz Sharif, into action and he initiated parleys with other PML-N parliamentarians from the same region. His immediate objective was to decipher the motives for this defection and ensure that more leaders of the party from the ‘cotton belt’ do not follow suit. Obviously, this was a major distraction from the engagements planned earlier.

The timing of the southern Punjab defection is instructive. Why would it dawn on them suddenly that the party they had stayed with until almost the end of its parliamentary term was a barrier to their political aspirations and that they had to strive for a new province to protect the rights of the people? It is interesting that most legislators from the region belong to dominant families who must themselves be held responsible for the enduring deprivations of their constituents.

Be that as it may, here was another manifestation of how the political equilibrium of Pakistan has shaken in the run-up to the general elections. To be sure, the initial warnings of the shakeup were available some time ago when the provincial government of Balochistan, led by the PML-N, was magically dissolved and the fruits of this feat were harvested in the Senate elections and, later, in the choice of the chairperson of the Upper House.

Meanwhile, dissidents have continued to raise their heads in some other parties. The MQM in Karachi has provided a particular spectacle of a leadership see-saw. There has always been a touch of drama in the party’s highly emotional encounters with its followers. But now the party, deprived of the demagoguery of its founder, Altaf Hussain, stands divided and is in low spirits.

It is Mustafa Kamal’s Pak Sarzameen Party that is providing a parking space to defectors from both factions of the MQM. It is an outfit that some suspect was propped up. But such allegations do not often ruffle any feathers. At times, this is the only excuse left to explain the outlandish shots played in the political arena.

The point, in any case, is that there is a sense of upheaval across the political spectrum and a growing sense of confusion about the role that the defectors will play in their newly-adopted parties. There are those who have a reputation of landing in the right party at the right time. In a sense, they are usually in transit.

With all this, there are some new and meaningful stirrings in the country’s political sphere. We may not yet be able to grasp the meaning and significance of the rise of what is called the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. It had held a large gathering in Peshawar last Sunday but it was born as a protest against the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi.

There is a heated debate on social media on what it means. Its leadership is becoming some kind of a cult figure. Could it transform into a nationalist struggle?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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