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The PML-N’s narratives


May 5, 2018

In Bollywood as well as Lollywood, many blockbusters – ‘Deewar,’ to name arguably the most well-known of these – have portrayed two real brothers working at cross-purposes. Whereas one brother, usually the younger one, goes by the book and shows reverence towards the established order; the other is cast as a rebel who bucks the system.

As the plot of the movie unfolds, each character defends his viewpoint and tries, in vain, to win over the other, who he thinks is holding the wrong end of the stick. While, as a rule, the protagonist – or the system – has the last laugh; it’s the antagonist who in his defeat steals the viewers’ hearts.

Let’s move from reel life to real life. The PML-N, which since its inception has borne the stamp of the House of Sharif, seems at present to be a house divided against itself. Nawaz Sharif, our only three-time prime minister, and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, a three-time chief minister, are – to all appearances – espousing diametrically opposed narratives.

The senior Sharif has subscribed to a narrative which portrays the political system of Pakistan as a perennial tug-of-war between democracy and authoritarianism or between popular will and extra-political forces. In this conflict, the narrative painfully observes, democracy has always bitten the dust. No prime minister has ever been allowed to complete their constitutional term. They have been forced to vacate their office on ‘flimsy’ grounds. If the country is to sally forth, so goes the narrative, the popular will as expressed through the ballot must reign supreme.

This is not a new narrative. Nor is Nawaz Sharif for the moment its only exponent. A section of society, including politicians and intelligentsia, has long maintained that democracy has never been given a fair chance in the country. It is argued that, from the very outset forces antithetical to popular sovereignty ensured that the road to democracy was strewn with enormous obstacles. Whenever it seemed that – notwithstanding those obstacles – democracy was taking root, it was either uprooted or thrown into a tailspin.

That is the reason, as per the narrative, that democracy in Pakistan has seldom been more than a house of cards, which is always a kick away from falling apart. The counter-argument is that if today, or in the past, democracy is in hot water, it’s politicians who must take the flak for this gloomy predicament.

It is not the narrative but the way the deposed prime minister is putting it out that has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Since his ouster in July 2017, he has at full tilt been tilting at the forces, which in his book give a hoot about the popular mandate. Despite receiving one adverse judgment after the other, and awaiting another which may place him behind bars, he has not toned down his opprobrious stance. Many believe that by refusing to draw in his horns, he is riding for a fall.

Shahbaz Sharif, who now formally heads the PML-N, while apparently in full sympathy with his brother over his unceremonious exit, has been remarkably reconciliatory towards all institutions. From time to time, he makes up to the powers that be. Nor does he see any serious conflict of interest between elected and un-elected institutions. He has seldom, if ever, accused other institutions of putting a spoke in politicians’ wheel. Contrary to his brother’s, his is a world of perfect harmony and equilibrium in which there can’t be a single winner. If the democratic process is to go ahead, civil and military institutions must play ball with each other.

Narratives are seldom contrived for their own sake; instead, they are subordinate to the purpose their exponents wish to achieve. Every narrative is by someone and for someone. Both the PML-N narratives are being advanced for some good reasons. Nawaz Sharif’s narrative is rooted in the perception that the cards are stacked against him on the legal or institutional front. In his eye, the powers that be have already committed themselves to propping up his arch rival. So he hardly stands a reasonable chance of winning them over again. The increasing number of defections from the PML-N may have lent credence to that perception.

Going by the narrative, the only way Nawaz Sharif can hope to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a rancorous battle is to go back to the people, paint his disqualification, now for life, and possible conviction as an affront to the popular mandate, make ‘respect for the vote’ a rallying cry for his campaign, and go all out against those who – in his book – set aside democratic norms. A logical implication of this narrative is that the upcoming elections will be a contest between the power of the people and the power of the institutions, which will usher in the triumph of only one. We may dismiss what Nawaz Sharif would have us believe as no more than a kerfuffle; but once we assume that his premises are correct, the conclusion follows logically from them.

Shahbaz Sharif’s narrative rests on the perception that, although the PML-N has lost a few legal battles, it can still win the electoral war provided it doesn’t position itself on the wrong side of the powers that be. The party may have fallen from grace; yet the fall is not irretrievable and the higher powers can still be propitiated. In a larger context, if politicians want the fragile political process to continue, they should work within the system – and not against the system. Instead of having a conflict perspective, politicians need to have a functional perspective on the political system.

There can be two possible explanations for the PML-N’s mutually incompatible stances. The first is that the stances reflect the divergent characters and experiences of the two brothers – pure and simple. The younger Sharif is a pragmatist to the bone, for whom utility outweighs any other consideration. Not only that, while his elder brother’s electoral career has come to an abrupt end, he continues to call the shots in the largest province. As a spin-off of Nawaz’s disqualification, Shahbaz has also assumed the mantle of the PML-N president, and is likely to be the party’s candidate for the prime minister’s office after the elections. In the presence of the senior Sharif, the junior Sharif would never be in a position to get his hands on the highest political office of the land.

By contrast, as per this explanation, Nawaz Sharif has the incorrigible habit to cut his own throat. Three times he was elected prime minister and three times he fell out with the powerful institutions. So his continuing ranting and raving is an index of his singular style of politics, which bears a strong imprint of his personality.

Alternatively, the conflicting narratives may be seen as part of a well thought-out strategy. In order to form its government after the elections, the PML-N has to secure the confidence of both the electorate and the institutions. It thus needs to adroitly play both popular and political cards. In the event that the strategy works, at the end of the day, the people will vote for Nawaz Sharif, while his younger brother will be the strongest contender for prime-ministership. Hence, the crown will return to the House of Sharif. To use a cliché, the strategy will enable the PML-N to kill two birds with one stone. In this context, Imran Khan’s remark that the PML-N is trying to have it both ways is not off-the-mark.

The writer is a freelancecontributor.

Email: [email protected]

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