October Issue 2003
Mother of all Leagues?
Technical committees have already done the groundwork related to the process and legalities of unification, and if all pointers stay the same, a formal declaration of unity way well be imminent.
But the real story is not unification. It is what has led to this new mutational experiment.
Muslim League insiders list various reasons for the new-found togetherness. One is the growing fear of losing ground to the new claimants to Pakistan’s political space. “My statistics prove that the Pakistan Muslim League lost between 20-26 seats in the last elections because of a lack of unity and fragmentation of the party. Most of us regret this fact. We believe the same pattern should not be repeated in another electoral contest,” says Ijazul Haq, who ironically, himself parted ways with two Leagues (Quaid and Nawaz) to form his own (Zia) League.
This is a view shared by all the minor Leagues — those with one or no seats in the National Assembly. Having parted ways with the mainstream of the party, they now face political isolation, even extinction. On his own, Ijazul Haq, for example, lost from his traditional constituency in Rawalpindi, barely scraping through to win one seat in the elections. Understandably then, the small players now want to regain political relevancy.
For the ruling League led by the Chaudhries too, unity is more a reluctant concession to political compulsions than a studied and calculated tactical adjustment. According to insiders, for the leadership of the Quaid League, primarily the Chaudhries, unification is hard to digest. The party has reportedly been wracked by in-fighting between Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, and other tensions also smoulder. “There were times when the two were not even on speaking terms with each other. Each suspected the intention of the other and both felt that they were being undermined,” says a senior League leader.
Chaudhry supporters contend that the party’s leaders had lost all say in matters relating to government. “We could not accommodate any political demands because the PM’s secretariat had become jealously guarded territory,” says one Leaguer. The Jamali camp maintains otherwise.
“The party leadership was trying to run government affairs, getting involved in postings and transfers and causing the Prime Minister severe embarrassment. There can be only one head of government, and it is Mir Zafraullah Khan Jamali,” says a member of the Jamali club.
It is hard to say whether the Chaudhry-Jamali tussle was the effect or the cause of disarray in the party. “Before the move towards unification of the League, the Quaid League camp was neatly divided into two camps. On the one hand sat those who were rooting for Prime Minister Jamali, and they also happened to be President Musharraf’s men. On the other hand were the supporters of the Chaudhries, and they both had major issues with each other. In between were those who thrived on stoking the fire and widening the divide, because on this depended their survival. It was a complete mess and brought the party to a standstill,” says a League leader.
The affairs of the party elsewhere were also in disarray. In Sindh the revolt against Ghous Baksh Mahar by the party rank and file forced the disbanding of the party provincial command, and in the NWFP, the party leadership seemed to be moving away from the League’s central discipline.
This chaos made the party ineffectual in parliament. Bitterly divided, the League could not counter the frontal attacks of the opposition on the President, nor could it get a consensus from within its ranks on the controversial issue of the Legal Framework Order.
“The absence of a central command made it impossible to hammer out an agreement on the LFO between those having different shades of opinion in the party. This only strengthened the opposition’s case — and it is having a field day,” says a senior Muslim League leader.
Enter President General Pervez Musharraf.
“He has always been unhappy with the fragmentation of the League, especially in the Punjab, and has maintained that the party’s rifts have been to the opposition’s advantage,” says a League member of the National Assembly who was part of a group of parliamentarians the president had called for a meeting in August at his house in Rawalpindi.
“Seeing that left to its own devices the Quaid League could not get its house in order, he took matters in his own hands and started to nudge the League leadership to bury the hatchet within the party and form a more effective political front against the opposition,” says the parliamentarian.
‘Nudging’ is perhaps too gentle a word to describe the President’s intervention in the Quaid League’s sorry affairs. Sources close to President Musharraf say that, in fact he put his foot down on the unification issue rather unequivocally, leaving no doubt in any Leaguer’s mind that there was no room for options.
“There was a lot of haggling over the finer details and modus operandus of the unification in the crucial meeting held on September 17 at the Prime Minister’s House where all five factions were represented. Chaudhry Shujaat had endless reservations. He wanted to know whether the other factions would subscribe to his party’s policy, how and who would control the party MNAs, what the legal status of the United League be, etc. There were also differences over semantics: was this a unification or a merger? And there were arguments about how the various and conflicting political demands of the various factions would be accommodated,” discloses one participant at the meeting.
The clincher came when Prime Minister Jamali told the participants that they had just another half-an-hour to decide the matter. And he reinforced the point by stating that before he had started the meeting the President had told him that he would meet them all if there were “good news” at the end of the parleys.
It was a sobering thought for the feuding five. Within no time they managed to reach an agreement, with all the factions favouring Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain as President of the combined party. Other offices, it was agreed, would to be decided through mutual consent. True to his word, a clearly satisfied President Musharraf then made an appearance, spoke briefly, and even stayed for lunch. Interestingly, when asked by a participant to indicate his preference for the leader of the United Muslim League, he said Chaudhry Shujaat as well.
Insiders maintain that the ‘unanimous’ decision to elect Shujaat President of the unified League was more pre-determined than spontaneous. “All of us knew that Chaudhry sahib, a reluctant player in the merger game, would not settle for anything less. We had coordinated our responses and it was understood that his nomination would receive a ‘yes’ vote,” says a League leader.
Another gratified Leaguer said, “It is clear to us that by throwing his weight behind the unification move, the President made it possible. We owe it to him.”
The question is, why would an admittedly politician-hating President involve himself with the League’s dirty business?
“He wants to see the League become the biggest political force in Pakistan. He is a Leaguer at heart,” says a die-hard Musharraf fan, who claims that the general is the next best thing that has happened to the Muslim League since Quaid-e-Azam.
Others are less naive.
“It is elementary maths. A United Muslim League along with the Sindh Democratic Alliance, MQM, fence-sitters from the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), some MMA components like the JUI (Sami) and the JUP, in addition to some women, would help the government notch up a the two-thirds majority in the House. Together, this lot could pass the Legal Framework Order without bothering about the opposition. The League’s unity is symbolic. It signals to everyone that the government’s doors are open and a coalition of the willing would be a force to contend with. If Pir Pagara and Manzoor Wattoo can sit with Chaudhry Shujaat, and he with them, then anyone can be accommodated,” says another League leader.
Then there is the cynical explanation for the President’s involvement which owes in part to the League’s history, and in part to power politics.
“Shujaat did to Mian Azhar, what he did to Nawaz Sharif, what he did to Junejo. Because of the Muslim League’s close association with the establishment, the latter will not allow it to have a politically strong leadership. The powers-that-be (a discreet euphemism for politician-generals) will not brook this. Chaudhry Shujaat may be a friend of a friend of Musharraf’s (read Musharraf’s right-hand man, Tariq Aziz) but he cannot be allowed to dominate the party. A merged Muslim League will always have enough wannabes jockey for power, thereby keeping Shujaat looking over his shoulder and staying in line,” says a Leaguer from the NWFP.
Others meanwhile, suggest that General Musharraf has entered the murky League waters in a bid to create more political options for himself.
“Finding himself in a tight corner with the MMA, and having written off the PPPP and the PML(N), the President has limited his options. The Muslim League (Quaid) has not been the kind of support he needs to deal with the brewing turmoil. A united Muslim League which owes its existence to the President’s goodwill will be his forum to handle politics better,” explains a Quaid League member.
Then, of course, there is the possibility that one day Musharraf might want to head the party himself. “There are no indications that President Musharraf is headed that way for the time being, but there are many Leaguers who have made such offers to him,” says the Quaid Leaguer, who adds that there is a lobby within his party which, in fact would relish the prospect of General Musharraf becoming the head of a United Muslim League. And there are others who share the sentiment. “Pir Pagara certainly would not mind the prospect,” he says.
There is more to the League unification than domestic considerations. Foreign policy challenges also figure.
For General Musharraf continuing domestic trouble is engendering bad press abroad. The extension of the country’s suspension from the Commonwealth on grounds of “weak” or “sham” democracy indicates how the world views Pakistan’s internal situation. The world community also has other concerns, which General Musharraf cannot ignore.
“We have shared our view with the government of Pakistan that the continuing political deadlock is creating fecund ground for extremist forces to take root and spread their influence. We want to see liberal and democratic forces being strengthened. Pakistan is an important country. It is a nuclear country. Its internal fragmentation can have disastrous consequences. Nobody wants that,” says a senior western diplomat.
However, it is an open question whether a united Muslim League can wrest the political initiative back from the religious forces represented by the MMA and provide General Musharraf the political and diplomatic room to manoeuvre.
The party has a poor track record of organisational coherence, and has always been regarded as the establishment’s workhorse. It will have to defy the laws of political gravity to become the credible platform General Musharraf needs rather urgently.