In early May 2012, Nawaz Sharif was addressing a public gathering in Ratodero, a town in Larkana district synonymous with the Bhuttos. His host, too, was a Bhutto — Mumtaz Ali, a two-time chief minister of Sindh and the founding leader of his Sindh National Front (SNF) which has campaigned for a confederal Pakistan since 1989 and that has now merged with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). And for the first time in his political career, Sharif made the surprising admission that he was in love with a Bhutto. “Nawaz Sharif loves Mumtaz Bhutto for standing by his principles.”
Along with this declaration, he mentioned two more things which confound more than they explain the relationship between his PMLN and Bhutto’s SNF. “Mumtaz says he has merged his party with our party; I say PMLN has merged with his party.” This was soon followed by another pronouncement of similarly sweeping nature: “I am pleased to know that Mumtaz’s stance on giving more rights and power to the provinces is same as PMLN’s.”
Such broad brushstrokes serve the two sides rather well, each giving it the spin of its convenience. “It is a great political achievement of Nawaz Sharif that the supporters of the confederation have agreed to give up their slogan and merge themselves with his party which stands for the federation,” is how Senator Pervez Rasheed, a senior PMLN leader, explains it to the Herald.
“The PMLN has accepted the spirit of the confederation by agreeing to maximum provincial autonomy,” says Engineer Ayub Sher who served as the last general secretary of the SNF and is currently vice president of PMLN-Sindh chapter. “Sharif appears supportive of the confederative system proposed in the Pakistan Resolution in Lahore in 1940,” he says. He adds that the PMLN chief has agreed to the Sindhi nationalists’ demand that the Senate is made “stronger than the National Assembly because the upper house has equal representation from all the four provinces”.
Sharif’s acceptance of the demand to empower the Senate more than the National Assembly cannot be such a non-event that nobody outside a coterie of Mumtaz Bhutto aides knows about it. It has, in fact, happened in the imagination of people like Sher because it involves a massive power shift that Sharif can accept only if he is generous enough to forgo his politics in Punjab which will be the biggest loser, politically speaking, with an emaciated National Assembly. Rasheed vouches for that. “We are ready to work with, form an alliance with, and accept in our party the forces that accept the country’s constitution,” he says, clarifying that the PMLN is not agreeing to a big change in the existing constitutional scheme, let alone accepting a new confederal Constitution.
The language of the electoral agreement that the PMLN has struck with the Sindh United Party (SUP), led by Jalal Mehmood Shah, the grandson of the late Sindhi nationalist leader G M Syed, also avoids making radical promises. It calls for maximum provincial autonomy within the ambit of the Constitution, implementation of the water accord of 1991 in letter and spirit, protection of geographical boundaries of Sindh and giving the province the power to generate maximum financial resources on its own. None of these requires any constitutional restructuring. In fact, most of them are already guaranteed under different articles of the Constitution.
The PMLN’s recent track record, in fact, shows that it has little appetite for any restructuring of the existing federal system, no matter how symbolic. It is perhaps the only party in the current parliament which resisted the naming of North West Frontier Province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its parliamentarians have also resisted the devolution of such subjects as education from the centre to the provinces under the 18th Amendment.
If the PMLN cannot give the Sindhi nationalists what they have been demanding for decades, then why are the two sides coming closer to each other? For many, the reason is a straightforward one — 2013 elections. Sharif is certainly motivated by the desire to make inroads into Sindh’s politics, dominated by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the rural hinterland and by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in the urban centres. “We want to free the people of Sindh from the shackles of the PPP and the MQM,” Rasheed announces grandly.
Analysts, however, see the situation in a mundane political context. “Sharif is trying to woo Sindhi nationalists in order to enter the province’s politics,” says Sohail Warraich, a Lahore-based journalist and political analyst. But he cannot do so while he is seen by the voters in Sindh as Punjab’s leader. “That will meet severe resistance,” says Warraich.
The PMLN’s primary objective is to weaken the PPP’s hold on provincial politics and somehow “balance” the power of the MQM, he argues. “This is precisely why Sharif’s party has joined the nationalists’ chorus against the new local government law, dubbing it as an attempt to divide Sindh.” As if to prove Warraich right, Sharif has supported all the recent calls by Sindhi nationalists for protests, sit-ins and strikes over the law as a means to embarrass the PPP in its own powerbase and further alienate the MQM in rural Sindh.
Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, another Lahore-based political analyst, links these developments with the perception that the PPP is losing electoral ground in Sindh. “The PMLN is hoping to get a breakthrough in the province’s politics and build its support there [ahead of the upcoming elections] by forging alliances with anti-PPP forces,” he says.
Some Sindhi intellectuals see Sharif’s entry into Sindh’s politics as the possible starting point for the emergence of an alternative to the growing alliance between the PPP and the MQM. The intellectuals are happy that he is not taking the same route to the provincial politics which he did in the past via the MQM. Zulfiqar Halepoto, a Sindhi nationalist activist and a Hyderabad-based political analyst, praises him for shunning what he calls the “anti-Sindhi camp” of the MQM. “Sharif’s victory in the next election will certainly be to the advantage of Sindh,” he says.
The radical agenda that Halepoto wants Sharif to promote consists of maximum financial and political autonomy for the federating units and a rewriting of the Constitution to restructure the federation and redress the current imbalance against the smaller provinces. So far the PMLN has been careful in supporting such causes. Besides making pious noises against the local government law, it has avoided being categorical on other issues. On most issues that are close to the heart of the nationalists, such as the creation of a new city, Zulfikarabad, near Thatta, as an export processing zone mostly for Chinese manufacturers, influx of Punjabi and Pakhtun immigrants into Karachi and Sindh undermining the numerical majority of Sindhis in their homeland, distribution of water and other natural resources and, most importantly, the restructuring of the federation, Sharif has chosen to remain silent.
And this has been helpful for him in his core support base. So far, says Rizvi, the PMLN’s centrist politics in Punjab has not come into conflict with Sharif’s support for Sindhi nationalist causes. But in the future such a clash will be difficult to avoid. As and when the nationalists ask him to agree to a highly radical agenda in exchange for their support for the PMLN, he will be in trouble, Rizvi adds.
Sharif knows he cannot always keep everyone happy. As soon as he starts taking a stance, he runs the risk of either losing his newfound allies in Sindh or getting ditched by his staunch supporters in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But his ability to maintain a deliberate silence will severely be tested as election draws closer and his party comes up with a manifesto which may or may not satisfy his current and potential allies and possible voters in Sindh.
Some Sindhi nationalist groups like the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz–Bashir Qureshi Group, the Sindh Taraqqi Pasand Party of Dr Qadir Magsi and Rasul Bux Palijo’s Awami Tehrik have already stayed away from any alliance with the PMLN and people like Halepoto are wary of Sharif’s rightwing, religious politics which they see as being pro-Taliban. “He will have to work very, very hard to shed the pro-Taliban tag, to become acceptable to the Sindhi middle class,” says Halepoto.
How will Sharif reconcile the political and economic interests of Punjab that his party has always represented since 1988 with the agenda of Sindhi nationalists whose support he is seeking to plot the downfall of the PPP-MQM combination — this is a million dollar question for which nobody seems to have a clear answer.
Rasheed argues that the question indeed does not exist. In his opinion, the nationalists are adopting the PMLN agenda rather than the PMLN having to agree to their demands. “We believe in resolving inter-provincial conflicts arising from growing demands on a shrinking economic pie. We have the ability to do so and in the past have demonstrated it. We believe in increasing the size of the pie so that the dispute on its sharing can be settled,” he says.
Rasheed claims that his party has already reviewed its stance on some issues which are anathema to the people in Sindh. The PMLN, for instance, has dropped its insistence on building Kalabagh Dam, he says. “Why pursue a controversial project when we have many other alternate hydropower and water storage options?” he says.
There is another important question that the PMLN needs to find an answer for: will its strategy in making electoral alliances with the Sindhi nationalist parties deliver it an election victory? Sindh’s election history since 1988 shows that the PPP has remained out of power in the province only when four different factors came together — the MQM, the powerful feudal political groups like the Mahars in Ghotki, Arbabs in Thar and Sherazis in Thatta, smaller parties like the National Peoples’ Party of the Jatois and the Pakistan Muslim League–Functional (PMLF) of Pir Pagara, and the military establishment and intelligence agencies. It was a combination of all these factors that helped Jam Sadiq Ali become the chief minister in 1990, Liaquat Jatoi in 1997 and Arbab Ghulam Rahim in 2004.
As the next election approaches, the MQM continues to stick close to President Asif Ali Zardari, the Mahars and Sherazis have already joined the PPP and the Jatois, Pir Pagara and the Arbabs are sitting on the fence — they cannot afford to ditch the ruling coalition unless the military establishment assures them that they will be a part of the next provincial government, regardless of who leads it. And, perhaps most crucially, there are no signals emerging from the army headquarters and the intelligence agencies as to which horses they will be backing in Sindh in 2013.
Rizvi, therefore, points out that the PMLN, which does not have a significant vote bank of its own in the province, needs to rope in powerful electable candidates like the Jatois, the Arbabs and the PMLF if it is aiming at giving the PPP a tough time. Banking on Sindhi nationalists will not help since they have been marginal players in the provincial electoral calculus and are expected to remain so in the next election. Halepoto agrees to this when he says Sharif has chosen a “riskier” path, in electoral terms, by joining hands with the nationalists. Even with a Bhutto in tow, he says, “it is not going to be easy for Sharif to win Sindh.”