Pakistan’s Stability Challenge

Prime Minister Nawaaz Sharif’s government is neck deep in trouble over Panama Leaks. He is accused of money laundering amidst evidence from the horses’ mouth in clear and convincing manner. Sharif’s own family and important members of his party have unknowingly made statements that malign Nawaz Sharif.

Imran Khan has threatened a shut down of the federal government through people’s power on November 2nd unless or untill Sharif resigns and presents himself for accountability over Panama revelations. The Supreme Court of Pakistan is in the process of hearing the petition that prays for Nawaz’s disqualification as PM of Pakistan. The religious political parties and non political religious entities such as seminaries are rumored to be joining the force of people Imran Khan has threatened to lead to Islamabad because corruption is against fundamental values of Islam. The military establishment is terribly unhappy over the recent Dawn gate scandal, wherein some member of the civilian government leaked to the media a conversation that took place in Islamabad between the military leadership and the civilian leadership at the highest level. The leak compromises national security and strengthens New Delhi’s campaign against Pakistan at a time the latter is at its highest pitch to distract domestic and international attention from the fact that Kashmir has slipped out of India’s control. The public is angry with the Sharif government for not doing enough to bring Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir to international attention. Those not thinking politically are also angry because they are hungry and are thus likely to join the agitation against the government.

A show down is approaching on November 2nd, when Imran’s sit in is scheduled to begin in Islamabad. There are whispers that the military will back the sit in. If so, it will be an important determinant of the outcome. Of course, a more important determinant will be the answer to the following question “who will back the Sharif government when the push comes to shove?”

One does not find the Supreme Court inclined to back the government, given the recent pronouncements of the judges in matters related to quality of governance in Pakistan. Political parties are no longer willing to support Nawaz Sharif for the sake of supporting democracy, as they did in 2014, when the PTI and the PAT staged sit in against the Sharif government in front of the Parliament for four months. Imran Khan’s uncompromising stand against evident corruption is lionizing him and will dwarf other parties if they do not join in the call for accountability.

Nawaz Sharif’s government is precariously placed on a very slippery slope. Even if it arrests Imran Khan and the rest of PTI leadership in the nick of time to prevent the avowed shut down of Islamabad on November 2nd, there are other powerful layers of discontent that it will not be able to pack in a sack and cushion itself till the 2018 election.

Corruption is a cancer that prevents progress and prosperity in a nation state. Lack of stability also prevents progress and prosperity in a nation state.  Hence the fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is; can we get rid of the pathogens without endangering the body?

More than Nawaz Sharif is at stake here. There is the political party called PML (N), a competitive political entity that survived years of intense persecution and exile of leadership from 1999 to 2008. Not all its members are involved in Panama Leaks. Some have served their respective constituencies diligently and are capable and honest politicians. Democracy can not happen in a vacuum. It needs political parties to survive and political parties need members with grass root connections to thrive. PML (N) has the same in no small measure, notwithstanding allegations (and some validation) of rigging in the 2013 general election.

Should Panama Leaks be allowed to kill or enfeeble the entire construct called PML (N), or should the party be allowed to survive the accountability process (and outcome) of its principle leader Nawaz Sharif. When tackling questions of this nature, the thought at all levels, and within all entities, must be institutional, not personal.

Were Nawaz Sharif to look at PML (N) as the political entity that must survive the crisis of its leader’s credibility, he would step aside and allow another member to step  in till the next general election in 2018. The stock market will continue operating at its optimal levels. The government will continue its projects to the end (barring the ones stalled by law). The PML (N) public representatives will continue serving their constituencies, even more rigorously perhaps, to prevent the leadership crisis from marring the image of the entire party and to enable its come back in the next elections. As they say, the party must go on.

The country will thus avert a crisis. The Supreme court will still handle what it must, ruling over Nawaz’s fate after examination of evidence. The media must scrutinize the affair of civil-military stand off in Pakistan, leading to either the civilians getting exiled (as did Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif) or the fallen military ruler getting exiled, as General Musharref had to after his civilian adversary made a come back through election in 2008.

The fact is, Nawaz Sharif was financially persecuted when he was removed from office by General Pervez Musharraf, when no scandal regarding financial irregularities was attached to Sharif yet. The media, including the larger civil society, must define the boundaries within which incumbents can deal with their political adversaries by asking some soul searching and necessary questions regarding our behavior at the apex. Political discord must not result in financial persecution of the adversaries by the incumbent. Such conduct is unbecoming of civilized leadership. Political exiles are borne of petty politics that demean an entire nation.

For now, it is Nawaz Sharif’s call to pay his party members back for the loyalty they showed to PML (N) by sticking to the party during all its crises, the most serious of which lasted from 1999 to 2008. Needless to mention, Panama Leaks is a personal crisis for Nawaz Sharif. Sharif has no moral reason to allow it to become a crisis for Pakistan – or an existential crisis for the entire PML (N), a precious political institution that must continue to contribute to the smooth functioning of democracy in Pakistan.

If Nawaz Sharif does not step aside voluntarily, the current government will be forced out of office and its members, who are innocent of any crime, will also get bruised. This time, it may be one hit too many for the party because the moral reason for unity against all odds is no more.

A New Phenomenon is Rising in Pakistan’s Politics

A new phenomenon is rising in Pakistani politics in the shape of 28 year old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and it is not because he is the scion of the most resilient political dynasty in Pakistan. It is Bilawal’s political astuteness that astonishes one as being beyond his years in politics. He has shown superior acumen in dealing with his chief rivals, Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. Both are more than twice his age and have been active in politics decades longer.

Bilawal showed up for the All Parties Conference Nawaz Sharif convened on October 5th  to address the Kashmir issue, at a time the latter’s leadership is taking intense heat over  money laundering accusation post Panama leaks. Bilawal was the sole beneficiary of the post conference media limelight as Imran  Khan did not attend the conference. He told media that his cooperation with the government is confined to Kashmir alone as the issue requires national unity. Having established that he is cognizant of leadership priorities, Bilawal then availed the post conference media time as Nawaz Sharif’s most scathing  critic. He did not let his attendance at the APC appear as endorsement of Nawaz’s leadership by predicting that in the 2018 election, his party will be in power while Nawaz Sharif will be in jail over money laundering.

Bilawal thus had it both ways.  He made his first appearance as a leader at a conference attended by all parties, and used it to emphasize his commitment to the cause of Kashmiri freedom from India’s bondage, (thus becoming the voice of the masses) while putting Imran Khan in the dock for choosing to stay out. He then availed the same podium for vociferous disapproval of Nawaz Sharif.

Yet another example of Bilawal’s shrewdness in dealing with his political opponents is the way he appreciated Imran Khan for mobilizing masses against corruption and went on to criticize the latter for not showing the  “way forward” i.e., not announcing the date when the PTI will shut down Islamabad, as promised by Imran Khan at an earlier rally. Imran Khan took the bait and declared the date of 30th of October in haste, it seems, as the 30th of October happens to be a Sunday when Islamabad is closed anyway. PTI has since moved the date to November 2nd.

Bilawal used the information supplied by IK to preempt IK’s mass mobilization derive by starting his own earlier. In doing so, Bilawal has again come across as a shrewd player with the ability to read the political pulse of the masses.  Politicians in Pakistan generally eschew political activity during Moharram,  a month when Shia pakistanis take out mourning processions all over the the country and remember the slain grandsons and other members of Prophet Muhammad’s  (PBUH) family in the most emotive manner.

Bilawal utilized the ethos of mourning during Moharam for political mobilization by declaring the mass rally of October 16th as the commemoration of the martyrdom of Pakistanis who died during the terror attack on his mother’s welcoming caravan in Karachi in 2007, when nearly two hundred people died and many more were injured.

During his address at the rally, Bilawal merged his political narrative with the religious narrative of Moharram, referring to himself as the grandson of slain (shaheed) Bhutto, the son of slain (shaheed) Benazir, and the son of the soil, saturated time and again with his family’s blood. He then addressed not the people of Pakistan but Jinnah, the man who created Pakistan, and wailed that Pakistan had fallen way short of the dream dreamed by the great leader who created it. Bilawal then undertook to fulfill the dream of the great ‘Quaid” and asked people to support him in the process.

Politics is the battle of narratives. Bilawal has pitched his “Quaid’s Pakistan” narrative versus Imran’s “new Pakistan” narrative. Imran can not possibly take on the narrative that “Quaid’s Pakistan must be built” because this is a narrative whose sanctity is enshrined in Pakistan’s history.

Bilawal denigrated his opponents at the October 16 rally with labels that reflect public perception, instead of hurling baseless allegations as is the custom in Pakistani politics. Imran Khan, for instance, is described by his opponents as working on zionist agenda and as the enemy of Pakistan, a description so divorced from public perception that instead of harming Imran Khan, the criticism ends up depriving its very maker of credibility. Pakistanis know Imran Khan as a committed nationalist and a thoroughly honest person. This is an entrenched public perception of Imran Khan. His sagacity, however, is another matter.

A smart politician hits his opponent where it can hurt the most.  Bilawal termed Imran Khan “immature” whose childish style of opposing Nawaz Sharif is actually benefiting the latter. Instead of using the word corrupt for Nawaz Sharif, (which applies to Zardari as well) Bilawal used the phrase “third time in PM office and yet thoroughly incompetent.”  Thus, while dwarfing his opponents, Bilawal preempted the most likely criticism of his own self – lack of maturity in years and political experience.

Political shrewdness notwithstanding, Bilawal exhibits a “passion” that has hitherto been the unrivaled attribute of his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It is this passion that will draw masses towards Bilawal in numbers the precedence of which lies only with ZAB in Pakistan’s political history.

His pasty smile is the only thing one wishes Bilawal did not have when dealing with the public. His handsome young looks are charming enough. He does not need a smile of the kind his father wore his audience down with when he was newly sworn into office.

Twenty eight year old Bilawal is sure to be a “phenomenon” in Pakistan’s politics in near future.  What is remarkable about the resilience of the Bhutto family in politics is the fact that the Bhuttos keep getting younger and younger as leaders of Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the dynasty, was forty two when he assumed office of the President in 1971. Benazir, his daughter, was 35 when she was elected to the office of the Prime Minister.  Bilawal is 28 now and will be thirty if the general election takes place as scheduled. Young Bilawal is likely to reinvigorate not only the PPP but also  Pakistan’s leadership scenario.

Pakistan’s military leadership should heave a sigh of relief at the rising phenomenon of Bilawal as they are in dire need of erudite nationalist leadership that can articulate a winning narrative to counter the narrative of Pakistan’s multiple enemies and keep the polity strong and united within.