September Issue 2007
The tectonic plates of national politics are shifting. The epicentre of the awesome political tremors being felt across the nation has formed many miles away from Islamabad, in the bustling neighbourhoods of central London. It is here that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two former prime ministers of Pakistan, have taken decisions whose impact has not only transformed their political personas but also the national landscape.
The force of this change has already hoisted both the leaders from their familiar ground and placed them on the precipice of a complete role reversal. Ms Bhutto, who for years inspired legends of resistance to Pakistan’s Byzantinian establishment, is now awkwardly placed as an opportunist deal-maker with President Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler; Mr Sharif, brought up at the knee of General Zia-ul-Haq and who, for years shamelessly hugged and championed his dark political legacy, is fast emerging as a symbol of defiance against General Musharraf’s attempts at stretching his eight-year rule by another five.
It seems harder for Ms Bhutto than for Mr Sharif to come to terms with their new positions. “You are totally mistaken” was her furious retort to my suggestion that Mr Sharif had managed to get rid of most of his ignominious spots and looked all set to grow into a national saviour.
“Voters are very smart. They know who is the child of the military junta and who is a genuine political leader. They also know that I am the one fighting for the restoration of real democracy and sending the army back to the barracks.” Basing the argument more on the strength of her voice than on the strength of her information, she delivered this notional assessment as a concrete fact of political life. The conversation closed with the caustic remark that “hopefully the about-to-be-done interview would be about me and not about Mr Sharif.” She was kind enough to believe the prompt assurance that followed.
It is understandable why she would want to shut her ear to any news about Mr Sharif’s growing stature. To her it is not a pretty sight. It is actually a personal slight. The mythology of her charisma is steeped in the perception that she leads a party that has always stood outside the circus commanded by generals and intelligence chiefs, who love to make supine politicians hop and jump at the crack of their whip. Also, her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is a political martyr in the truest sense of the term, who lost his precious life to a most foul judicial trial completely rigged by General Zia to entrench himself in power.
And while Ms Bhutto mourned the killing of her father, suffering jails, exiles, batons and near-successful attempts to destroy her party, Mr Sharif’s fortunes blossomed. He was grafted on the national political scene with the sole purpose of countering the People’s Party — a project that was bankrolled by the inexhaustible secret funds of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies.
All through the eighties and the nineties, and even after having won two national elections, Mr Sharif’s political calling card did not change the imprint of his past. To Ms Bhutto, Mr Sharif’s basic introduction as a politician has not changed since. At any rate, not to the extent of replacing her as the carrier of the democratic torch. Her self-image is too deeply tattooed on her mind to allow for a reality check.
But out there in the heat and dust of national politics, in a remarkably short time, fortuitous events have brought Mr Sharif close to that status — a fact which Ms Bhutto is in denial of.
In the purgatory of exile, Mr Sharif was not really able to purge himself of the sticky sins of his past. The understanding with the Saudi government to stay away from Pakistan and the fear of being deported upon arrival practically hand-tied him from making any difference to the national scene. And not long ago, his ram-shackled party looked set to wither away as a shepherd-less herd. The only redeeming feature of this dispiriting scenario was the Nawaz Sharif refrain, which grew shrill after his arrival in London on January 29, 2007, that he would not talk to General Musharraf.
That rhetorical stance now has grown to become the most cashable currency of the Sharifs. General Musharraf’s self-inflicted sucker punches in his futile brawl with the chief justice of Pakistan and an increasing public resentment against his attempts to perpetuate himself in power through suspect means have given him the worst approval ratings of his stint in power: 34% in June 2007, down from 60% in the same period last year. Ms Bhutto’s talks with the point-men of an increasingly cornered President Musharraf, leaked by an omnipresent electronic media, are terraced against the wall of Mr Sharif’s consistently tough no-negotiations-with-the-general stance. Presidential sources maintain that the Sharifs have been engaged in a dialogue with them on pretty much everything that they are discussing with Ms Bhutto, but the Sharifs have managed to maintain credible deniability on this score. This is in complete contrast to the clumsiness with which the People’s Party has tried to beat around the burning bush of information on their interaction with the general’s team.
For all political purposes, the volcanic sentiment against General Musharraf has started to gather behind the tilt of the Sharif stance. This is to the great dismay and envy of some of the most die-hard party workers and leaders from the People’s Party, who openly express a desperate desire to see Ms Bhutto take the kind of line that Mr Sharif has on General Musharraf. Almost the entire legal fraternity, including, ironically, some of Mr Sharif’s most avowed critics are now willing to throw in their lot with him as they prepare to challenge General Musharraf’s bid for a second term.
Ms Bhutto is hand jamming hard to climb back to the position of a credible opposition leader, one who is not using the backdoor to enter into the mainstream. But the wind does not seem to be at her back. More so since the Americans seem so eager to get her to the peaks of a power-sharing arrangement that would also involve General Musharraf as a civilian president. This makes her cut a pro-American figure — the surest path to popularity ruination in today’s Pakistan.
Yet again, Mr Sharif is the beneficiary. He has not heaped scorn on the Americans for their foreign policy; and, indeed, has spoken about his resolve to counter terrorism. But he has maintained a certain balance and composure in expressing the need to maintain good ties with the US. His party’s virulent criticism of the government’s Lal Masjid operation has been in stark contrast to Ms Bhutto’s unquestioning endorsement of it — something that resonates with Washington’s stance that the so-called Islamic terrorists need to be snuffed out rather than engaged in negotiations.
It is true that Mr Sharif, in keeping quiet on matters involving religious extremism, is actually pandering to his right wing, conservative constituency. But the unintended consequence of this stance is salutary for his political repute: it seems as if he is showing an independent spirit of defiance to the US.
All this makes it brew well for him. And if we throw in his usual advantage of being an incredibly rich, Punjab-based Kashmiri with longstanding linkages with national and provincial civil and military bureaucracy, the mix could not have been tastier for him since the start of his political career. A couple of weeks ago, he seemed reluctant to accept his transformation from an exiled futureless leader to the centre of everyone’s attention and a representative of considerable national aspirations. But the Supreme Court’s verdict allowing him, his brother and their families to return home gave him the final dose of self-confidence. And as he pulled up his socks to return home, you could see in him a confidence you had never seen before. Here was a man who thought he had arrived, politically — a far cry from an irascible Ms Bhutto who does not even know how badly her stocks have dipped in the market of public opinion.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.