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Opinion

September 16, 2018

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Terms of bereavement

Begum Kulsoom Nawaz’s death in London has delivered a message that needs to be carefully interpreted. It relates to the present state of our potentially noxious politics at various different levels. And it poses questions about the future of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz’s political future.

Because of the specific circumstances in which this tragedy has occurred and the image of a dignified woman who was Pakistan’s first lady thrice, there is this sense of a national bereavement. All major political parties were officially represented at the funeral held on the grounds of Sharif Medical City on Friday and she was laid to rest at the adjacent Jati Umra, the Sharif family complex in Lahore.

It was on a fateful date, September 11, that she passed away in a London clinic after being under treatment for cancer for over a year. But her husband and her elder daughter weren’t at her bedside because they were lodged in Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, sentenced by an accountability court in the Avenfield property reference.

During this entire period that Begum Kulsoom was so seriously sick and periodically on a ventilator, her husband and daughter were engaged in a vicious battle against adversaries. We had all the ingredients here of a Greek tragedy of immense human dimensions.

At the same time, though, it was a dirty game of politics. We have had, in Pakistan’s history, a number of similar contests of power. But with the induction of social media, this became exceptionally venomous. One measure of this was how Nawaz Sharif’s political opponents cast aspersions on the authenticity of Begum Kulsoom’s sickness, as if it was a ruse for Nawaz Sharif and Maryam to dodge the trial and find refuge in London.

This, of course, was just one dimension of the low quality of the political discourse that has flourished in the national media, nurtured in an environment where independent and objective coverage of political affairs is suppressed. In fact, the state of the media has a direct bearing on the unfolding saga of the Sharif family and the possible consequences of the tragic death in London on Tuesday.

Naturally, we now have an outpouring of sympathy for the Sharif family, specifically for Nawaz Sharif and Maryam, the rising star on the PML-N firmament. For the time being at least, the other side in the political divide may have to restrain itself. Meanwhile, there is growing anticipation that Nawaz Sharif and Maryam would obtain some relief from the Islamabad High Court.

In any case, it was Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of resistance that largely precipitated the present crisis. On the face of it, the game is over and Imran Khan’s PTI has won its victory. That is how Imran Khan became the prime minister and there is a great commotion about the advent of Naya Pakistan. Besides, the PML-N-led opposition in the legislative arena is led by Shahbaz Sharif, who is not a rebel in his elder brother’s mould. This means that Maryam is her father’s charismatic heir.

Does this mean that Begum Kulsoom’s death and the sympathy that it has generated has the potential of somehow disturbing the existing political equilibrium? There are some reasons why the bereaved followers of the PML-N would locate some hope in this unanticipated development. A brief presence in their midst of a visibly crestfallen Nawaz Sharif is sure to touch their passions and awaken a longing for some action.

We know that Nawaz Sharif and Maryam had defiantly refused to apply for parole to attend the funeral when Shahbaz met them in prison after they had received news of Begum Kulsoom’s demise. So, the application was signed by Shahbaz. In any case, they were able to attend the funeral and receive visitors. The Punjab Home Department has extended the initial 12-hour parole for five days, ending in the afternoon on Monday. This should allow the Sharif family some time for deliberations.

It does matter that Begum Kulsoom was a universally admirable person, projecting considerable grace and dignity. As a first lady, she had a few similarities with Nusrat Bhutto – especially the grief she suffered for her husband’s travails. The tragedies endured by the Bhutto family belong in a different category. But we should acknowledge the courage and forbearance that Nawaz has unexpectedly mustered to effectively change the politics of Punjab.

Hence, we have the making of another charismatic leader, with his share of sorrows. As for Imran Khan, he was already cloaked in charisma when he entered the political arena more than two decades ago. That he remained in the wilderness for all these years is a comment on his ability to make use of a divine gift. Perhaps the backing that he has received in this year’s elections is another such gift. And yet, the beginning he has made is not very encouraging.

Incidentally, we have still to come to terms with the circumstances in which the elections were held and the governments were formed at the centre and in the provinces. The logic of numbers would suggest that a formidable opposition to the PTI-led arrangement is possible. But the PPP, guided by Asif Ali Zardari’s disputed wisdom, seemed not so eager to take on the rulers. Will this change in the wake of Begum Kulsoom’s death and the feeling of togetherness it has evoked?

It is possible to overstate the consequences of the emotional wave that has been raised within the ranks of Nawaz Sharif’s party. A lot will depend on how the higher judiciary deals with cases that involve the former prime minister. Since there are no national elections to contest in the near future, he cannot be out on the hustings, even if he isn’t in prison. While the by-elections are drawing closer, they will not change the overall situation.

But the PML-N is very much in the game and the political investments made by Nawaz Sharif could still bring dividends for Maryam. Whenever there is an opening or an opportunity, the seeds sown in Punjab are likely to fertilise and that might finally change the balance of political power.

But the road to that eventuality must pass through some treacherous territory. The going is already getting tough. Pakistan confronts enormous challenges, which aren’t just restricted to the economic and financial domain. Our society is more severely impoverished in the intellectual and social context. An Atif Mian cannot serve even on an advisory council and our great leader doesn’t have the courage to explain why a globally esteemed economist was summarily disinvited.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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