Most political parties in the united opposition have been defined largely by political expediency, which made it easier for them to come together
By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Shehbaz Sharif, 70, is all set to be elected as Pakistan’s next Prime Minister following Imran Khan’s ouster. A three-time chief minister of the most populous Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was allowed to go to the UK in 2019 for treatment but has not since returned to serve his prison term for corruption. Shehbaz Sharif, who also faces serious graft cases, is the joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. He was nominated for the post since his brother and his political heir, Maryam Nawaz, are ineligible for the post because of their disqualification following conviction of corruption. Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Shehbaz, too faces corruption charges. He is expected to take over as Punjab’s chief minister.
Shehbaz Sharif was asked to take on the mantle of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), the second-biggest party in the national assembly, when his brother was disqualified over corruption charges linked to the leaked documents that showed his children owned properties in London. An investigation into the Sharifs’ assets followed. It emerged Nawaz Sharif also withheld his Dubai-based employment in the nomination papers for the 2013 elections.
In an article in the Independent following Sharif’s ouster in 2017, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid noted it ‘could bolster a culture of accountability and uproot the dynastic politics epitomized by the Sharif family.’ But another return of the Sharifs has proved dynastic politics has deep roots in Pakistan, where no political party actually has any real commitment to ideology. Most political leaders have shown little ideological commitment. They mostly inherit leadership and end up passing it on to their children. Kinship and patronage networks have more salience. The Sharifs have been in and out of power since the 1980s and have repeatedly survived thanks to a mastery of these networks, which permeate every aspect of society. Kinship plays an important role in voting patterns. A Gallup survey in 2008 showed that 37 percent of rural and 27 percent of urban voters attended community meetings to decide whom to vote for.
The Sharifs belong to the influential Amritsari-Kashmiri community. They have built their alliances with other communities such as the Arains. The Arain-Kashmiri alliance has been so formidable that except for two, all mayors of Lahore since 1947 have been from these two communities. The Sharifs have also stitched other similar alliances. They also have a business empire and base among traders in Punjab, where around 60 percent of the country’s population is concentrated.
In a 2012 article, Pakistani journalist Amir Mateen wrote that the Amritsari Kashmiris virtually run Lahore and their political influence extends even farther. He wrote that Sharif’s family has encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab. Kashmiris have always held key Cabinet posts in Sharif’s government. His move to name fellow Kashmiri Ziauddin Butt precipitated the coup that cut short his second term in power in 1999. The deep pockets and business empire of the Sharifs allow them to nurture kinship and patronage networks for an assured base, which has helped them make repeated comebacks.
The ideological flexibility of the Sharifs has also helped them. Nawaz Sharif started as a protégé of military leader Zia-ul-Haq, whose conservatism makes him the most hated ruler among the liberals. Nawaz Sharif has transformed from the darlings of the conservatives three decades back to that of liberals now. He has cultivated a favourable image among the liberals including through his continuous advocacy for better ties with India and supporting the minority rights.
In 2017, Nawaz Sharif chose a Hindu temple complex in Punjab’s Katas Raj to warn hardliners against preaching animosity while calling hate-mongering unlawful. He promised the welfare of minorities and reaffirmed his belief in equal citizenship at a function following a Hindu ritual at the centuries-old complex associated with Shiva. In December 2016, Sharif re-named a centre at Pakistan’s best-known university after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam from the Ahmadiyya community, which has been persecuted in the country. Sharif’s government got the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in September 2016. In November 2015, Sharif attended a Diwali function that began with the recitation of Hindu and Muslim prayers and promised Hindus he will support them even if their oppressors were Muslims. Sharif’s government also executed Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer over alleged blasphemy.
Sharif is known as an infrastructure-obsessed and pragmatic businessman-politician, who has given Pakistan perhaps the best network of motorways in the region. He liberalised Pakistan’s economy in the 1990s. Sharif’s pragmatism had him join hands with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) despite a bitter history of adversarial politics in the 1990s.
Former President Asif Ali Zardari, who now helms PPP, has been known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’ for the deals he cut for contracts when his wife Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister. He defines the idea of politics as an art of the possible. Zardari has been jailed over corruption, smuggling, and murder charges. But he has also continued to remain relevant thanks to a separate set of kinship alliances. These ties favour traditional parties. They are stacked against politicians such as Imran Khan, who has commanded little sway in villages, where kinships are a bigger factor. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani polity is largely bereft of any real ideology with power the end for most political parties and means for making money. Nawaz Sharif continued denying owning flats in London but has been staying in one of them since 2019.
Zardari, who played a key role in stitching together the alliance against Imran Khan and has also been accused of offshore assets, was handed over PPP’s leadership on the basis of the will Benazir Bhutto is believed to have left before her assassination. Their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is most likely to be PPP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next elections. He will be the third Prime Minister from his family if he is able to get the post.
Khan’s obsession with holding traditional politicians accountable had almost all political parties, including PML (N) and PPP, close ranks to bring him down. The united opposition of assorted parties even included Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which has been accused of being funded by foreign intelligence agencies to orchestrate unrest in Pakistan’s northwest. Most political parties in the alliance have been defined largely by political expediency and that is why it was easier for these parties to coalesce despite identifying themselves as conservatives, secularists, centrists, leftists, etc.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of Pakistan’s biggest conservative party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), best exemplifies this expediency that helped him remain part of the power structure for over two decades despite a limited base. Imran Khan’s ascension pushed him into the political wilderness in 2018. Rehman earned the ‘Maulana Diesel’ sobriquet in the 1990s when he cut a diesel franchise deal with Benazir Bhutto in return for support after an ugly campaign to prevent her from becoming the Prime Minister in the name of Islam. He stoked anti-American sentiments but in private lobbied US envoy Anne Patterson for American support for his prime ministerial ambitions. At a dinner Rehman hosted for Patterson in November 2007, an aide of his told the envoy that all ‘important parties in Pakistan had to get the [American] approval.’
In a leaked 2007 cable, Patterson wrote Rehman is known for ‘wily political skills.’ She added she was told Rehman’s ‘still significant numbers of votes are up for sale.’ Patterson wrote Rehman enjoys ‘being courted by both [military ruler Pervez] Musharraf and [Benazir] Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker’, if not the Prime Minister. Patterson added Rehman wanted to be ‘more engaged with the US’ and to lobby the Congress and American think tanks. She wrote Rehman appeared worried about whether the US would deal with him if he became the Prime Minister. He cautioned Patterson ‘not to put all the eggs’ in Bhutto’s basket. Months later, Rehman got his brother a lucrative ministry in the PPP government that was formed in 2008.
Given the track record of his opponents, Khan’s allegations of an American plot to oust him will have resonance and keep him in contention for a comeback despite his governance failures and mismanagement of the economy.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan