From Establishment’s Proxy to Democratic Conservatism

Raza Habib Raja

The Post Osama Bin Laden political landscape is continuously heating up and is marked by growing chasm between army and the civilians. However, out of prominent political players the party which is blatantly asking the right questions is not a “liberal” party but a conservative party. What makes the whole scenario interesting and even ironic is that the party in question was once the proxy of the establishment. The same party which once needed crutches of the so called “deep state” is now the vanguard of democracy. Yes, right now the questions, which should be asked are not asked by “liberal” parties but a party whose genesis were in the darkest and most shameful period of Zia’s Martial Law. Yes, there will be people who may not agree with me about the democratic credentials of PML (N) and will continue to associate it with Zia’s time. But the life has moved on and times have changed. With the changed times, the political players and their associations have also changed.

PML (N) is still a conservative party. It still and will continue to adhere to the aspirations of the conservative section of the populace. Yes, it is Punjabi in its outlook and also has a history of association with religious parties. However, one thing has become evident that over the period of time, while keeping its realpolitik interests intact, the party has matured and is closer to center right rather than religious right. It is now a democratic party though with conservative orientation. Yes those who identify themselves as “liberals” (by the way do they really exist in Pakistan) will still not vote for it, but at the same time, if they are intellectually honest, will attest that there is a huge difference between PML (N) of 1990s and 2011. PML (N) has come out of age and right now despite being socially and economically conservative, it is a party which rightly understands that ultimately it’s the civilians which should have the power and the armed forces should be accountable to the parliament. State has several pillars and the most important pillar is the parliament.

How has this transition taken place? How come the illegal legacy of the worst dictator has now transformed into an anti thesis of military rule. This article tries to trace its evolution from establishment proxy to democratic conservatism.

 It’s strange that a party which has been in the front line of politics since its inception in 1985 has never received that much academic attention the way its rival PPP has received. One of the reasons is that PPP, at least in its formulation reflected the aspirations of those times. It roots were in the desperation felt due to rising inequalities and consequently left wing idealism fuelled its formation. Its formation was in the middle of Pakistan’s first truly socially broad base movement and was in some ways a logical political outcome. Moreover the personality of Bhutto, his ability to create mass frenzy supplemented with brilliant oratory, subsequent flirtation of Pakistan with state oriented socialism and the tragic fate of Bhutto has given PPP a much pronounced academic as well as intellectual appeal

On the other hand PML (N) was not formed out of some political struggle or movement but was rather just a collection of people who got elected in non party based elections. Its leader Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, was just a handpicked individual by General Zia and possessed little political weight at that time. In its formative years, PML(N) was just an establishment party and even for political processions needed administrative support.  And yet compared to other various Muslim leagues, this party has survived and in fact thrived. In fact as the 1990s neared to their end, this party was a heavy weight party in its own right and thumped PPP in 1997 elections. An establishment party has not only survived (compared other king parties) but also is now a force to reckon with.

How do we explain the ascendency of a political party which initially did not originate from the people? Partly the answer lies is that although its formation did not materialize out of a proper political process, nevertheless its formation and initial outlook was designed by Zia to cater to segment of anti PPP sentiment prevalent in the society. In a strange way, Bhutto, besides his impact on left wing political landscape, also had significant influence on the formation of conservative opposition in Pakistan. There are two phases in which his influence was enacted. First was during his rule when his policies really started to alienate conservative middle class and allowed their parties to successfully come under the same platform. This is a significant but sometimes overlooked phenomenon. Bhutto once he came into power involuntarily hit urban middle class too much. The brunt of his policies hit the industrialists and the urban middle class which started becoming more conservative and started to unite. At that time there was not any mainstream conservative democratic party like PML (N) today, therefore consequently JUI, Jamat-i-Islami became the torch bearers of Bhutto’s opposition.  However, the major problem was that these parties were primarily religious and though had proximity to conservative values did not represent them completely. So second influence was after his death when Zia realized the anti Bhutto sentiment prevalent in middle class and knowing that religious parties did not have potentially that kind of mass appeal which a conservative democratic party would have, created a Muslim League. The party created by Zia, despite not going through evolution like a proper political party was able to tap the support of urban classes and it successfully positioned itself as an electable alternative to PPP at least in Punjab. And ironically its leader Nawaz Sharif’s own rise (though frankly intellectual level of both is way apart!!!!) is quite similar to Bhutto’s and initially he even imitated Bhutto’s style of mass engagement though Mao cap was replaced with a P cap!!!! Nawaz Sharif in those days positioned himself as an alternate to Bhutto’s ideals. In fact I remember in the run up to 1988 elections, an advertisement campaign was launched on print media reminding all the readers of all the “excesses” of Bhutto’s rule in 1970s. During 1988-90, there was a constant rift between the Centre and Punjab, which elevated Nawaz Sharif to a national status due to high publicity. Moreover it positioned him as an electable alternative to PPP’s Benazir Bhutto.

However, PML (N) victory in 1990’s elections were largely due to establishment’s active interference and moreover because even before the elections there was wide spread consensus that PPP won’t be allowed to come to power. This allowed PML (N) to have strong candidates in the rural area where politics is mostly personality driven rather than party driven. And those strong candidates align themselves with a party which is “expected” to win.

However, it was after 1990 that PML (N) began its rise.  Once in power Nawaz Sharif started rolling back aggressively the economic steps Bhutto had taken. Privatization became the order of the day and Pakistan started its overtures to attract foreign investment. The steps taken by Nawaz Sharif rallied the urban middle class as well as the industrialists around him. The party had started to have genuine political base largely comprising of middle classes and anti PPP segments of the populace. It was in 1993 that PML (N) had a split with the establishment when Nawaz Sharif was dismissed by Ghulam Ishaq Khan. His dismissal for the first time tested whether the party was in a position to garner street support. After the night of dismissal, the party went defiant and Nawaz Sharif travelled via train to Lahore. The reception he received surprised many as people virtually thronged the railway stations at every major city. Subsequently the court restored Nawaz Sharif only to be removed again in a few months’ time.

The 1993 elections was the first time that PML (N) was fighting without establishment’s active support which chose to stay neutral. PML(N) fighting on its own displayed a surprisingly strong performance and managed to actually gain 73 seats compared to PPP’s 86. It was not a mean achievement as majority of the political pundits at that time were actually writing PML (N) completely off. The elections result finally established PML (N) as a mainstream party capable of winning on its own and representing a definite constituency in the urban areas.

The second tenor of PPP was marked with controversies and disillusioned a lot of its voters which was reflected in 1997 elections when PPP got almost annihilated. Contrary to the popular belief this performance did not actually result in a large shift of voting populace towards PML (N). In reality the PPP voter did not came to vote at all whereas PML (N) retained its vote bank. The results thus gave this illusion of a very heavy mandate whereas a closer look would reveal that voter did not cross turfs.

The second tenor of PML (N) was marked with controversies just like PPP’s tenor and moreover the lack of effective opposition resulted in Nawaz sharif turning on to the other pillars of establishment such as Army (Jehangir Karamat) Judiciary (Chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah) and Presidency (Farooq Leghari). The second tenor of PML (N) also virtually completed its detachment from the establishment and in the way also paved the way for ultimate removal of its government through a military coup.

Once completely out of power, now was ultimately the real test for PML (N). In some ways it found itself in a similar position PPP was in during Zia’s time. It was during this time, that PML (N) in its bid to survive started concentrating closely on its base and that was in the urban areas of Punjab. The Musharraf’s tenor witnessed a crack down on PML (N) and concentrated efforts to break its influence in NWFP and Punjab. The inroads the party had made in Sindh were completely eliminated and party also realized its hurdles and kept its focus more on Punjab. However, the overall effect of Musharraf era was the increase in regionalism and ethnocentric politics in which PPP and PML(N) both realigned themselves to their core  On its part PPP also started gravitating more towards Southern Punjab and Interior Sindh. Presently both the main parties, seem to be representing their ethno culturist bases.

Since PML (N) has witnessed at least two sackings by the hands of the “real” power brokers and has also witnessed crackdown in the Musharraf tenure, it has learnt its lessons. It has understood that while sucking up to the whims of the establishment may lead you to power but such a power will always be toothless. Ultimately even power is meaningful only  if its real power.




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