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May 11, 2019

Politics of generational change


May 11, 2019

Never before had we seen such an exceptional send off to prison by party enthusiasts than the way former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was sent this week with love to the politician’s ‘second home’ – jail. All talks of “deal or dheel” were buried with the rejection by the Supreme Court of the review appeal to extend Nawaz's six-week bailout. Isn’t it now time for a generational change?

All politics in Pakistan has grown out of the womb of, or in defiance to, prolonged military regimes. That includes the Sharifs’ politics – both in its origin and in its fallout with the powers that be. Groomed by Gen Jeelani and patronized by Gen Ziaul Haq, Nawaz Sharif took a long time in charting out his own tumultuous course while both coalescing in and confronting the establishment. Incomparable to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who independently launched his own political platform in defiance of the military dictator under whose paternalistic tutelage he had initially started his career, Nawaz Sharif wrested control of the party that was created by his military mentor after the latter had sacked his handpicked prime minister, Mohammed Khan Junejo.

However, by being in the office of prime minister, Nawaz was structurally fated to join the company of his predecessor whom he had helped dispose of at the wink of a military dictator. Faced with the challenge of a youthful charismatic PPP leader, Benazir Bhutto, the establishment built Nawaz Sharif as a conservative alternative to the Bhuttos’ center-left politics in a pro and anti-Bhutto divide. However, with the gradual evaporation of the political divide of the 70s and 80s, Nawaz Sharif emerged as a national leader only when he first defied the autocratic patriarch, president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and stood up to the successive Bonapartists. However, in the end, after the dismissal of three of his governments, Nawaz Sharif began to be seen as an uncompromising leader.

Reneging on Nawaz Sharif’s defiant narrative, which raised the political stock of the PML-N despite charges of corruption, the younger Shehbaz Sharif staged a kind of soft coup within the House of Sharif and the party, and took a course of reconciliation. Waiting helplessly in prison, the older Sharif along with daughter Maryam kept a moratorium over their political instinct till all the abortive moves of Shehbaz Sharif miserably failed at any kind of deal-making.

Shahbaz Sharif embarrassed the whole opposition by not playing the role due of an opposition leader, and sought refuge in the Public Accounts Committee from the agonies of NAB prosecutions. Even though he had kept a distance from the charges of alleged corruption directed against Nawaz Sharif and his siblings, he couldn’t keep himself and his family from being embroiled in multiple cases. Despite distancing himself from his older brother’s politics of defiance, he failed to win back some breathing space and apparently lost out in a battle of political succession within the family and the PML-N. In his six weeks of freedom, the older Sharif struck back and brought back his own team along with heir-apparent Maryam to lead the party. Yet, the PML-N remains a party centered around the Sharif family not yet prepared to give way to other stalwarts, even if faced with the dynamics of ‘natural selection’.

Unlike the challenge of the Bhuttos, painfully reduced to Sindh at a higher cost for federal politics, the Sharifs’ popular base in the dominant province essentially posed a problem from within the power bastion of Pakistan – Punjab. Despite enormous efforts to wean away the PML-N’s support base in central and western Punjab, the political hold of the Sharifs in Punjab could only be slightly weakened. It was quite unprecedented that a party known for its clientele role defied its traditional character of defection and no PML-Q type of forward block could be created. Benefiting from the plight of the Sharifs, the fortunes of the PTI could only partially glitter on the wave of anti-incumbency and anti-corruption mantra with the induction of weathercocks from among the Punjabi elite, the Seraiki feudal oligarchs in particular.

As a process of disillusionment with Imran Khan’s forced populism sets in at a faster pace than expected, the political scene is becoming increasingly mercurial and uncertain. The shifting of responsibility of governance failure to his loyal cabinet members did not help much to improve the ratings of a clueless prime minister. By handing over almost all substantive ministries and important divisions to alien technocrats, the prime minister has rather alienated most of his parliamentary party, which is already too dependent on unreliable allies.

As the economic crisis refuses to subside and the cost of living soars beyond the means of even the middle classes, the resentment against the regime of change is becoming increasingly ominous amid the waning enthusiasm of the venom-spitting rank and file of the PTI. The choices made may have left the maneuverers of choices in quite a situation. Both the mainstream parties in the dock and the alternative chosen being a most inconsistent and fragile political option is a dreadful dilemma that has come about when there is little space left for an increasingly vibrant society.

Both the rising disillusionment with Imran Khan and the ineffectiveness of the opposition are complementing a political void that has to be filled sooner than later. Against the backdrop of Shehbaz Sharif’s escape from performing the role of an active opposition leader, a thoughtful and dynamic PPP young chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, emerged as the most vocal critic of a quasi-democratic regime. Former president Asif Ali Zardar, after some unsuccessful hobnobbing, has finally resolved to face the trials that he had faced quite steadfastly in the past. This gave young Bhutto ample space to revive the memory of his brave mother Benazir Bhutto. He now speaks with knowledge, clarity of thought and more confidence. Perhaps, it’s time for a new generation of unblemished young leaders to replace the fossilized older generation.

Seeing political plausibility slipping away from the Sharif family, Nawaz Sharif seems to be more resolved to face up to the adversity, despite his poor health. After being disqualified from holding any governmental or party office, Nawaz Sharif is a political casualty with undiminished dividends to pass on to his successor. The send-off to prison rally this week testified who is to be the next generation leader essentially from among two contending cousins. Obviously, with no talent for leadership, Hamza Sharif is out along with his self-centered father, Shehbaz Sharif – even if both will struggle to survive. That It’s Maryam’s time was evident as the crowd that had gathered to see off her father looked towards her to carry on their political narrative. The generational change in the leadership of both the PPP and PML-N is a prerequisite of a more democratic and dynamic political leadership. However, in the last analysis, the country needs a more broad-based people’s politics than such pragmatic generational change within the narrow confines of political dynasties.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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