The party goes on

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

IT disconcerts political interventionists that political parties—be they cultist or ideological—do not come and go by virtue of registration paper alone. They have a ground reality. Disqualify the leader, even ban the party, but adherents adhere. Popular support—overt or covert; subverted or repressed—will always remain a challenge for reformists who need to oust superfluous leaders/parties that have yet to be democratically nullified by the voter.

What to make then of a ‘disappointing’ PPP; disgraced PML(N); their fate and standing?

The PPP is older as well as a trail-blazer conceived in the context of the new state Pakistan. Its founding premise was original, not a reconstruction or resuscitation of flailing politicians and shaky platforms.  ZAB is much remembered for his charisma, but a major reason the party still has strength was ZAB’s organizational capacity and personal example that inspired others to slog at structuring the party’s systematic hierarchical contact and engagement with the people. Bhutto’s PPP was built on sweat and toil, the blood and tears came later. That pristine PPP drew intellectuals and voters to the party platform without inducements, and—despite the founder’s tragic political lapse into egotistic absolutism—its adherents later rallied to Begum Bhutto’s side to save a democratic manifest, risking harsh deterrent punishment.

The deficiencies of other parties ensure the PPP’s relevance in political gaming, but there is a sad vacuum where the foundational PPP used to be. Today it is almost impossible to think of the PPP operating without the use of the carrot and the stick. Within a limited context of selective party preferment it seems much like any other party. Political pragmatism is necessary, but of what sort and to what end? The PPP is a vibrant political force—but it vibrates against democratic ethos too often. One can but hope the liberal egalitarianism that riveted its electorate will find a mode that serves rather than parodies the founding spirit. Will Mr Zardari’s fabled political instincts tell him the party machine which remains firmly in his grip needs a reset?

Mian Nawaz Sharif was quite willing to be found by General Jillani for General Zia to be used against the PPP and the Bhuttos. Yes, he also helped Zia do the dirty on Junejo. True, General Aslam Beg subsequently found him politically handy in the IJI. So just how and when did the PML(N) morph/mutate/reinvent itself as a genuinely democratic factor—clearly in 2018 the voters’ choice rather than the general’s?

One can argue the superpower mood of global insistence on ‘democratic government’ forces Pakistan’s do-gooders to remain within the democratic format and politicians like Mian Nawaz to assume that persona as political camouflage in the mere pursuit of power. But that would be to overlook the way people and institutions– not just the army, but the legislature, the executive and the judiciary as well– handled and responded to local politics and politicians. Experience and observation tutored Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML(N) into improved democratic conduct: A positive instance of empirical pragmatism?

Those wary of allowing democracy free rein are more comfortable with a hung parliament or political disharmony and fragmentation that permits coalitions that can be arranged and reworked. Hung parliaments are ineffectual; and coalitional arrangements open the door on political bargaining and pressurization. But when the pattern is used too often too soon, it acquires the wrong kind of transparency. For democracy is a learning process for civil politicians and the public and, unlike juntas, they have and need grass roots. General Zia’s death in a plane crash pre-empted his negotiating his way out of his increasing civil-military difficulties.  However, his crafty Eighth Amendment survived him, and so the new ‘troika’ was able to change democratic direction without needing to resort to exciting populist unrest. Democratic witch-hunting took the form of accountability initiated by the rival political party.

But as electoral understanding grew, and precipitated elections purged and re-purged, bureaucratic accountability as a weapon of political destruction was blunted. Also, an incumbent government, having previously lambasted party rivals, is constrained to visibly try and do better. People were beginning to understand the power of their vote and wanted their governments directly voted out or electorally returned rather than dismissed or gifted. Public opinion veered towards completion rather than nullification of electoral mandates. But oligarchs learn too.

Today the weapons used against ‘unsound’ yet electorally mandated parties are taken from the democratic arsenal. Demos and rankings from the social media serve as popular indexes; while the mainstream media provides a constant feed of sensationalized selective highlighting of administrative deficiencies and social ills. Unwittingly perhaps, a perception of deliberate callous neglect and exploitation by ‘the government’ is exacerbated.  The charge of corruption is used to alienate and incite anger, not just with a view to cure. Things could spiral out of control only too easily on the streets and political embargoes seem the readiest, if not the only, solution. There is a demand for ‘change’, Tabdeeli.

But where are the shining new faces?

Few appear on the electoral arena with the enviable clean sheet Benazir Bhutto had in 1988 and Imran Khan in 2013. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been chairing or co-chairing the empowered PPP for some years. Although he has not been an MP he has a performance record. As has Imran Khan– that by now anomalously parliamentary icon of national opposition. His post-election track record shows him heavily dependent on non-principled and inconsistent alignments and tactical propping up, be it by the PAT; the MQM; the PPP or a diversity of conservative clerics and acolytes. His governmental challenges to rivals take the form of accusatory declamatory orations and threats of civic disruption.  Both inside and outside of parliament the party lacks substantial alternatives in policy proposals and initiatives. Nor has its performance in KP been breathtakingly superior. Despite its chairman’s personal magnetism and entertaining thundering atop containers and at the hustings, the PTI is currently less esteemed as a democratic servitor or worthwhile alternative than it was in 2013. It may be hard to persuade skeptics that power-play is not ‘tilted’ in its favour: The IJI endeavour offers a kind of precedent. Only this time the PML(N) rather than the PPP appears targeted.

That Na-ahl Mian Nawaz Sharif has come a long way from the PM who sought to enact an amendment that would have conferred unassailable and comprehensive power on his office. The proposed legislation was all the more menacing for being lobbied as Islam-based, and General Musharraf’s innovative counter-coup was popularly welcomed. But the incarcerated incompetent former PM surprised all.

The common people identified with the rather homely Mian Nawaz, who’d come to their homes during floods, talked and sat among them, and whose family life and values reflected their own mores. Frustrated out of work electables and would-be turncoats discerned too much grass roots sympathy for the pathetic figure of their former party-leader to risk breaking faith with him publicly. With the best will in the world, the PML(Q) could not really get going for General Musharraf in his efforts to emanate the Essence of Demoracy and Enlightened Moderation (a Musharraf doctrine?) until  Mian Nawaz Sharif was allowed to proceed out of Pakistan in an arrangement that suited his detainers and former party-men possibly even more than it suited him.

Benazir, the politician born; and Nawaz Sharif, the politician manufactured; combined their mettle to work out the Charter of Democracy. The agreement was the outcome of bitter experience, trial and error.

Dictators in a freedom-loving country like Pakistan sooner or later find themselves at a popular impasse, in need of reconciliation and safe exits. Benazir negotiated her re-entry into local politics and neither she nor Musharraf could convincingly exclude the PML(N). Fate did not allow Benazir life to live by the charter; and neither the PML(N) nor the heirs to her PPP respected its spirit in parliamentary opposition and leadership.

Elected politicians have served the electorate poorly; but that electorate has never sought a dictatorship. Na ahl-ized  Nawaz Sharif’s party surprised every cynic. There was a breathless pause until a new leader of the house was elected, but the party has yet to take spontaneous flight and re-initialize. Pressure and maneouvring to create or project a desertion of the Na ahl leader has not succeeded. Balochistan’s re-assembly is likely to prove a pyrrhic victory. There is seepage everywhere, but the mass has yet to run with those who leak away.

They may not be that good at democratic practice, but the PPP and the PML(N) have a democratic caliber the new kid on the block has not done much to prove in himself.