External Affairs

Has the PMLN Transcended Nawaz Sharif?

In Pakistan’s political culture, the ghosts of vanquished leaders prove to be more potent than their live versions.

Credit: Reuters

Just weeks after the historic ouster of Nawaz Sharif from the Prime Minister’s Office through a court decision, it already looks like a non-event. The new prime minister was calmly elected and governance became business as usual in no time. There had been no party defections, no noisy internecine fights and no experts revised their assessments of the prospects of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) in the coming general elections. The anxieties about the impending dangers to democracy and the live broadcast hysteria about the system being “derailed” once again have dissipated too.

So has the PMLN transcended Nawaz Sharif?

The party was a test-tube baby born in the Pakistani establishment’s political laboratory. It was invested with the best of genes from the rightist ideologues and the rising Punjabi civil business class. It was designed to serve as the antidote to the leftist populist politics of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). And it did serve the purpose. But then it refused to limit its existence to that purpose alone: in the process, it got its own personality.

Sharif’s person stood to symbolise the interests of a particular Punjabi class. He was ‘progressive’ in his role as he wanted those interests to be sovereign, more than his class was actually ready for.

During his first tenure, he took little time to identify the office of the president as an obstacle to his politics and took it head on. In his second tenure, after subduing the presidency, he tried to get an upper hand in competition with other institutions of the establishment. His successes could only be undone by a brazen military coup.

Sharif was ditched by his class in 1999 as too many of them switched loyalties. They either considered their own interests secondary to those of the military establishment or simply lacked the self-confidence to declare their interests supreme.

But the fondness for Sharif’s aggressive politics did continue to express itself, albeit in a discreet way. His party’s seats in the National Assembly nosedived from a whopping 135 of 207 in 1997 to a miserable 19 of 342 in 2002. But he did retain, in 2002, four out of every ten votes that his party had polled in 1997, even as it faced the most adverse of the environments created by Sharif’s military nemesis. Then, in 2008, his tally of votes more than doubled compared to the 2002 polls, while suggestions of his return were still vague and nobody was certain about the end of military rule.

The Punjabi civil elite’s interests in the country have grown substantially since the last days of Pervez Musharraf’s regime. They can’t be deprived in politics and they can’t be a corollary to the interests of the military establishment any more. The Punjabi elite now demands a defining role in every sphere of the state. If their next opportunity for growth is to stem from changes in foreign policy, nothing can stop them from striving for this.

The person of Sharif was, perhaps, best suited to lead his class in its next fight. But has he really been prevented from doing this? In Pakistan’s political culture, the ghosts of the vanquished leaders prove to be more potent than their live versions. We also have a history of leaders who directed their parties without occupying an official position, and some even possess the grit to do it remotely.

This may be Sharif’s destiny now.

For the PMLN, too, it makes little sense to drop the letter ‘N’, at least not till the next general election. The party has been quietly relieved of the heavy personal baggage that its leader carried from the past, though this is proving to be no diversion from its representative character. It is now the new old party.

The next general election will be a big test for the party. It will be the time for the PMLN to calibrate its relationship between ‘the new’ and ‘the old’. If the party can find a fine balance, it will be ready to pick up its next fight from where Sharif left off.

Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group focused on understanding governance and democracy.

This article was originally published in the Herald’s September 2017 issue and has been edited to meet style guidelines.