On an evening just before the general election in 1988, in a middle class locality in Lahore, a group of men were brought together by a mission. This was an assortment of men — young and old, traders, students, shop employees and retired government servants, all bound by a common desire to somehow stop Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) from coming to power. Their own differences were ignored — some were Nawaz Sharif fans while others had long been toeing the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) line and still others were not exactly fond of General Ziaul Haq or for that matter politics. In the National Assembly election soon afterwards, their alliance managed to secure a rather easy victory for Mr Sharif from the constituency — one of the three Lahore seats out of nine lost by the PPP in that poll. They were truly vindicated on the provincial level two days later when the evil Ms Bhutto personified after long years of General Zia’s pure, patriotic national-interest rule was denied a majority in the vote for the Punjab Assembly.
I can still recall a friend back then saying, “It matters not what means we apply. We must at all costs defeat the PPP.” These words were spoken not by an ideologue but by a 20-something soul who had taken a break from his fun, largely apolitical pursuits, to frankly express a political wish in the company of elders who cared.
Over the next 24 years, perhaps much more loudly in Lahore than anywhere else in Pakistan, his words have found resonance in the anti-PPP argument that has repeatedly united the unlikeliest of groups — among them generals, bureaucrats and other such worthy holders of high offices. Ask the ideologue in General (retd) Hamid Gul and he is surprised that anyone can actually question the invention of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and the dirty role it played to contain PPP and the Pakistani people. He has been daring everyone to take him to court over the anti-PPP alliance, justifying it with a resort to national interest. The inventors feel this holy jihad of theirs deserves a gesture of gratitude from those for whose protection it has been waged. Actually, for many an ideological leader, this jihad within Pakistan was an extension, an equally serious and necessary manifestation of other jihads that Pakistan was engaged in; in Afghanistan, in Kashmir.
The ruling in the Asghar Khan case confirms rigging in the 1990 election, a landmark in the struggle, yet by no means a freak or isolated instance in this internal jihad. Shouldn’t this be a vindication of the sheer commitment of the anti-PPP jihadi brigade? They might not have succeeded in always pulling the rug from under the PPP’s feet, but they did win a few battles built into the larger war. Then, obviously they can take credit for all the modifications the PPP had to make to stay in the race for power.
The modified PPP today gets a rap by its remaining workers for having degenerated into an outfit that is prepared to do anything to be in the good books of the establishment. The establishment may or may not now want to create special cells and to distribute money among a set of pious politicians to keep the PPP at bay, but what has already been achieved cannot be undone and the process, which was set in motion years back, continues to this day.
Some 22 or 24 precious years ago the state extended its support to an alliance of the patriotic fearing a PPP invasion of their lives. It was a nucleus that defines politics in Lahore, in Punjab and many other areas of Pakistan now. So much has (been) changed over time that if someone today merely longs for a restart from that crucial moment in history he does so at the risk of being labelled as ‘backward’ by all those who are in a hurry to move on towards a durable democratic system.
Mian Nawaz Sharif is one man who has moved a long way, already. The Asghar Khan plea accuses him of taking a few lakhs — which was not quite commensurate with his status even then. The pittance he is said to have been paid for his loyalty to the anti-PPP standard put up by the Pakistani state’s elders was more by way of a commitment by influential sages, a symbol, tabarruk or a good luck charm, for his success. That charm lived up to its billing.
Not only has he been extremely mobile, Mr Sharif today claims to have emerged out of the influence of many of the past elders. Ziaul Haq is a stranger to him and he shuns the JI, once his partner in ideology, in power and (allegedly) in the funding from a cell in presidency and agencies to thwart the PPP. The post-exile Sharif is a darling of nouveau progressives in Pakistan who must distinguish themselves from the fascist liberals, some of whom continue on the long excavation aimed at discovering the PPP’s liberal face. Do his old and new admirers mind if he is found out to have received money a long time ago in the past? Doesn’t appear likely, not at least in the context of his rivalry with the devilish PPP.
For one, skeletons are quickly pulled out all around to create an impression that all politicians have been guilty of dirty tricks at one time or another. Two, due to the security risk Ms Bhutto and her wayward PPP represented, Mr Sharif was not fighting a simple political battle; he was waging a holy war that still justifies his method as it had done two decades ago – if not in the mind of some state actors – to other powerful harbingers of Pakistani ideology as espoused, among a long list, by the IJI and its inventors more than two decades ago.
It is this original objective and Mr Sharif’s success in accomplishing the mission which distinguishes him in the eyes of the crowd. The original brief has not changed, given the present calls for containment of the PPP, and its own complaints thereof, such as the ones about selective accountability by courts. That fundamental still works and has been a huge, forever agitating factor in its losses in urban Punjab, one middle class area in the country with a proven ability to rise above ethnic and religious affiliations.
Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), JI, the conscientious state actors and soldiers minding Pakistan’s ideological boundaries, and not least the PPP – even if due to the undeniable urge of staying in the race of power – have all contributed to the politics as it is conducted in today’s Pakistan. They and so many others besides them have contributed to this complex before the shameless money dispersing the Asghar Khan case has pointed to and they have done so since 1990.
If an alliance of generals, bureaucrats and politicians was prepared to do anything to contain and deny the PPP in 1988 and 1990, later on reports have done the rounds about a certain jihadist magnate by the name of Osama bin Laden providing the funding for an attempted overthrow of a Benazir Bhutto government. On a political, moral level the threat by militants to PPP meetings are all too genuine. Apart from this the humiliations Mr Zardari’s party men have suffered in courts, strengthen the original anti-PPP sentiment — notwithstanding the generous but irrelevant accolades Ms Bhutto has won from her old detractors posthumously.
Things set in motion a long time ago have come so far that an overtly-modified PPP will find it difficult to claim to be the heir to the party that was wronged and file with public for compensation. Among other modifications the party has gone under, its deals for power with the establishment have become all too obvious. It may still win elections but since it is altogether another party than it was in 1977 or 1988 or 1990, the causes it is fighting an election for have also changed.
The middle class, the urban middle class in the all-important Punjab with its morals and ideals is wary of Mr Zardari’s party and the tales of corruption by the PPP are all too readily accepted for even a stigmatised Mr Sharif to take Mr Zardari as a serious challenger. Instead, new logic about PPP’s as yet untested powers to surprise its opponents in polls is spun. With the change in strategy that is uncharted territory, the PMLN would be to a large extent justified in hoping that all the negative media coverage that the PPP has gotten in recent times would be more vivid in popular memory than an old case in which someone had taken money from the well-wishers of the people for a public good.
In the circumstances, if the Asghar Khan case is going to add to the political worries of Mr Sharif, the threat emanates not from the PPP but a new saviour who has risen by his side in the conscientious, patriotic camp: Imran Khan. By tagging their politics with the rulings by the courts in recent years, both the PMLN and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) had hoped to gain public sympathy for reform spearheaded by the honourable judges. The analysts had long maintained that sooner or later some kind of a divide will occur in what is generally called the ‘pro-judiciary’ camp. It was also said those who have been in power in the past would be unlikely to escape the reformative sweep of the court.
The country may be approaching this moment of truth and with his clean slate, his higher morals and his promise of the new, Imran Khan is a phenomenon the PMLN has taken seriously in its stronghold of Punjab — much more seriously than the prospects of a late challenge by the PPP-Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam combination. It is still a long way to go. The PTI may as yet be not poised to dethrone the PMLN but it is surely well placed to cause a few sleepless nights in a Raiwind mansion. Air Marshal Asghar Khan, for long a not too prominent political passenger and now a member of the PTI, has contributed to his party’s cause. Imran Khan was long warned of fading out from politics in the same way as Asghar Khan had done. The two Khans could yet combine in a game-changing partnership.
— The writer is the resident editor of Dawn in Lahore