Wednesday October 04, 2023

What does N stand for?

February 23, 2020

With its 19 seats back in 2002, the PML-N showed more spunk in times of outright dictatorship than it does today in the face of praetorianism with a democratic facade.

What became of the GT Road campaign that sought respect for the ballot (‘vote ko izzat do’) after Nawaz Sharif was unceremoniously shown out of the PM House by the long arm of the law? The PML-N’s fight these days seems limited to finding a way for the former first daughter be with her ailing father. Can such politics be the harbinger of change?

Does N stand for anything other than finding a way to weasel itself into power? Nawaz Sharif started out as the establishment’s creation back in the 80s. He had a mild falling out in the early 90s when he made his won’t-take-dictation speech before being fired by Ghulam Ishaq Khan. After a half turn afforded to the PPP, he managed to get back on the saddle with two-third majority in 1997. Half way into the second term he locked horns once again with the establishment. He tried to fire Musharraf and the rest is history.

After being sentenced to life (for the so-called plot against his fired army chief), in face of the state’s demand for death sentence, the Sharifs cut a deal with Musharraf and jetted off to Saudi Arabia, leaving the rest of the party to fight it out on its own. Many justified the deal and NS’s exit (including Imran Khan), pointing to lack of bargaining power between one wielding a gun and the other at its wrong end. In a country’s whose most popular PM could be hanged by a dictator (within years of the East Pakistan tragedy), living to fight another day seems logical.

Forced exiles can be tough. There was a general sense that Nawaz Sharif learnt his lessons. That his run-in with the establishment informed his politics and purged him of his original sin of being the establishment’s front – and, having been PM twice, he didn’t need the highest civilian job if it was devoid of the power that should vest in the office of an elected head of government. The PPP and PML-N had also made a song and dance about the Charter of Democracy. The end of Musharraf together with the lawyers’ movement thus brought hope for change.

The least ambitious claim posited by democracy upon its return post-Musharraf was that politicos had learnt from the 90s and wouldn’t make the same mistakes again – ie: getting caught up in corruption scandals and sleeping with the establishment as a way to seek control over the shrunken domain of civilian power. But 2008-18 was a repeat of the 90s. Some politicos couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar, some couldn’t resist picking fights with the establishment and some couldn’t resist selling their soul as the preferred path to power.

And so here we are in 2020, with the past and the future rolled into one. While the position taken by both the PPP and the PML-N on the army chief’s extension and Army Act amendment is inexplicable, the PML-N’s conduct is particularly indefensible. We’ve heard from the PML-N since 2014 that a conspiracy was afoot to displace its government and that the PTI dharnas were the orchestrated means to that end. The dharna weakened the PML-N government considerably and then the Panama case provided the required opening to bring it down, with Dawn leaks and the TLP as additional nails in the coffin.

It has been the PML-N’s position that if Election 2018 was fair and free, it would have been voted back into power. It has spoken about the Agriculture Department, aliens (‘khalai makhlooq’), the selector, the umpire etc. In a nutshell, the PML-N has claimed that its ouster was the establishment’s doing, which propped up IK and installed him in office. The PML-N claims that it wasn’t shunted out because it was making hay while in power, but that the establishment was peeved as NS insisted on independently exercising the power that belongs to an elected government.

The PML-N has insinuated that most of the tension with General Raheel Sharif was over the issue of extension: he wanted one but NS didn’t relent. At the time, the PML-N took the position that it had always been opposed to extensions as a matter of principle. There were tensions over the Musharraf trial, CPEC, budgetary allocations etc as well. The PML-N narrative has been that the army wanted control over CPEC, but NS insisted that CPEC belonged in the civilian domain. And that the army wanted more budgetary allocation, which Ishaq Dar didn’t think he could manage.

In the PML-N’s view, it was in this backdrop that the Supreme Court found that NS wasn’t ‘sadiq and amin’ and a JIT was formed to dig up and pin dirt on him. The PML-N was projected as a security risk (by virtue of Dawn leaks) and liable to charges of blasphemy (post Election Act, 2017 and the Faizaabad dharna). NS was tried under the accountability law and sentenced. He couldn’t be with his wife in her last moments. Maryam Nawaz couldn’t be with her mother. They were both thrown in jail and his sons couldn’t visit him in Pakistan or else they would also be jailed.

His proponents projected NS as the unyielding leader who chose to be robbed of his office, his reputation, his time with his ailing wife and endured the pain of seeing his beloved daughter locked up, all for the principal of civilian supremacy. This new NS was the polar opposite of the NS from the 80s that the establishment found and groomed. This new NS was fearless and a royal pain because he had nothing to lose anymore. It was this image of NS that inspired the PML-N cadre to see itself as the force on the right side of principle and history.

While supporters were busy celebrating this born-again force of resistance having emerged from the Punjabi hinterland to fight for rule of law, democracy and civilian control of the polity, the issue of the army chief’s extension arose. And then everyone found out that, while in the UK to be treated for a life-threatening health condition, NS had blessed the policy of unconditional support over the chief’s extension. And just like that the opportunity of having a meaningful conversation in parliament around the role of the military in the polity emerged and disappeared.

At the heart of the Army Act amendment debate wasn’t whether our army chief should have three more years in his current job, but how this country will be run and who will run it. Here was an opportunity for parliament to indulge in a truth-and-reconciliation type conversation, to admit past mistakes, agree not to make them again, to demarcate the military’s proper role in the polity and create checks to prevent it from being dragged into politics. And suddenly all that talk about principles and democracy and parliamentary supremacy vanished into thin air.

And what has followed is chatter about a London Plan, about the reunification of N and Q, about how Shahbaz is better at having buses run on time and keeping streets squeaky clean compared to the current lot. It’s the same story all over again. Revolutionary N has had another makeover. It is busy putting together a power point for its latest pitch to be hired for the top job with the promise of better delivery. So why give yourself and your supporters a bloody nose in the first place if it was going to come down to whimpering followed by toadying?

Let’s not hold our breaths for N’s revolution. We’ll need to get fresh popcorn should that movie recommence, but only after the weasel manoeuvre fails.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.