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The dilemma of the heavyweights

Opinion

July 1, 2018

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‘A friend in need isn’t a friend indeed.’ This is how the doyen of pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer, turned on its head one of the most commonly used aphorisms.

Going by the wisdom of the German philosopher, the only reliable guide to choosing friends and foes is pragmatism. In a world where discretion is the better part of valour, it is better to turn away from a friend who is in hot waters than to stand by him and thus, cut one’s own throat. Is, unwittingly, seasoned politician Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan a follower of Schopenhauer?

For sure, Chaudhry Nisar isn’t a turncoat. His association with the PML-N is conterminous with his political career spanning four decades. He isn’t one of those who are among the first to jump out of the ship when they smell a rat. Had he been cast in such a mould, he would have parted ways with the PML-N in the wake of the 1999 coup, and like several other colleagues, joined Pervez Musharraf’s party. However, he stayed put and demonstrated that a friend in need is a friend indeed.

‘Not so fast,’ the cynics would retort. Why of late has Chaudhry Nisar chosen to pass opprobrious remarks about his erstwhile leader Nawaz Sharif? Why is he not throwing his weight behind him when the latter needs him most? Why has he flatly refused to owe allegiance to Maryam Nawaz – Sharif’s heir-apparent? If, taken at his word, the ace politician from Rawalpindi is so fond of calling a spade a spade, why did he repress his keenness to do so before the sun was beginning to set on Sharif’s fortune? Isn’t it convenient to kick a person when he is down? The answer to such questions will lay bare the dilemmas faced by political heavyweights like Chaudhry Nisar.

In Pakistan, party leaders are for life – unless, of course, they are disqualified by the courts or otherwise forced to go into exile. Even in that event, they continue to lead the party by the nose through informal mechanisms. Only death effectively de-seats them. But immediately their replacement comes from within the family – the spouse, a scion or sibling. When Z A Bhutto was put behind bars by Gen Ziaul Haq, the mantle of party leadership was assumed by his wife Nusrat Bhutto and after his demise by their daughter Benazir Bhutto, despite the presence of several capable leaders in the PPP. The only one to challenge Benazir’s leadership was her brother Murtaza Bhutto.

Likewise, consequent upon Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, her spouse Asif Zardari took control of the PPP, while their son Bilawal Bhutto was made the party’s figurehead, leaving heavyweights like Makhdoom Ameen Faheem high and dry. After Nawaz Sharif had been debarred from holding the top slot in the PML-N, his younger brother stepped into his shoes. The only challenge to Shahbaz Sharif’s leadership in the party comes from his niece.

In the PTI, a staunch critic of dynastic politics, Imran Khan’s position is as secure as that of the Sharifs and the Bhuttos in their respective parties. Notwithstanding all their political clout or wealth, heavyweights such as Shah Mahmud Qureshi and Jahangir Tareen will continue to play a subsidiary role in the party. As a rule, the top slot is not up for grabs in political parties – major as well as minor. Instead, it is regarded as the incontestable right of the next of kin. Who can think of replacing Maulana Fazlur Rehman in the JUI-F or the Khans of Charsadda in the ANP? Not surprisingly, political parties remain overtly authoritarian, with the high command acting like an absolute monarch.

Such a political ethos puts heavyweights like Chaudhry Nisar on the horns of a dilemma. Either they remain in the party and play second fiddle to the top leadership, or quit it in case they are not willing to grin and bear their position in the party’s packing order. But in the event that they opt to call it quits, they are presented with another dilemma: which party should they join, because every other party would present them the same Hobson’s choice. One way out of this dilemma for such politicians is to set up their own party and become a leader for life in their own right – just as Z A Bhutto and Imran Khan did.

But luck seldom smiles on others the way it smiled on the aforementioned gentlemen. It is easier to put in place a new political party than to make it a success. There are countless examples of frontline politicians, who for one reason or another formed their own party. However, the new parties failed to shine on the political horizon. As a result, they were either forced to dissolve their parties and return to the original organisation or become a toadies of another major party.

Former Punjab chief minister Hanif Ramay and federal minister Maulana Kausar Niazi left the PPP and established their own parties. But the organisations they set up remained non-entities and, having drifted for a few years, eventually returned to the mother party. Former chief minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and ex-president Farooq Leghari, two other PPP dissidents, also set up their parties. But in each case, the party couldn’t take off and withered away. Leghari passed away a Muslim Leaguer (the PML-Q), while Jatoi had retired from active politics years before his death.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmad who, like Chaudhry Nisar, hails from Rawalpindi and has a saga of electoral victories to his credit, parted ways with Nawaz Sharif after the 1999 coup, served under Gen Musharraf and finally formed a party by the name of the Awami Muslim League. But since its inception, the party has remained effectively a one-man show. For the last five years, Sheikh Rashid has been leaning on the support of Imran Khan, whom he used to revile, to survive politically. Forming a party is a quantum leap. One may, like Bhutto and Imran, scale heights or, like many others, come a cropper.

Chaudhry Nisar’s choices are thus limited. Because of age, if for nothing else, he seems ill-suited at this stage to lead a party in his own right. He can move to the PTI, where he would be welcomed with open arms for various reasons – being an electable being one of them. But what would happen next? As in the case of another PML-N stalwart, Javed Hashmi, who crossed over to the PTI in 2011, it will only be a change of the master.

If dissent is looked upon as a vice in the PML-N, it is regarded as a sin in the PTI. We may recall how a few years ago Hashmi was forced by Imran to eat his words for having committed the unpardonable sin of praising his former leader Nawaz Sharif. In the end, the veteran politician from Multan had to leave the PTI over irreconcilable differences and return to the erstwhile party. Chaudhry Nisar’s fate may not be different in case he joins the PTI. To borrow a phrase from Sheikh Rashid, he will have to work on the same salary as he is drawing from the PML-N. Political heavyweights may be lions but they are lions under the throne.

When the political culture frowns upon dissent, leadership doesn’t rest upon moral foundations but on the leader’s ability to hand down reward and punishment. Loyalty to a leader becomes largely a matter of expediency rather than a matter of conviction. Expediency makes for only fair-weather friends, who have no incentive to help a friend in need.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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