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Stalemate Or Check? Nawaz Sharif And The Battle For Punjab

The recent anti-establishment outbursts of Nawaz Sharif have taken the political tug of war between his party and the establishment to the next level of the mortal political combat. However, the political high drama unfolding with all its peculiarities and generalities, continues to dodge a cogent explanation. Political pundits stand puzzled by the flagrancy and ferocity of the ongoing political engineering, persecution of the opposition and the strangulation of free speech normally witnessed under the military regimes.

Tellingly, we are consumed by our laser-focus on debating the politico-economic fallout of the unfolding fiasco. The focus is misleading as it holds us back from reconstructing the political jigsaw puzzle. Thus, there is a great need for the seminal reset in the analytical lens to find out the root cause that triggered the chain of events that have plunged Pakistan into the present political paralysis. Locating the trigger is key to unravel the riddle of what actually drives the ongoing political upheaval.

To understand how we got here, we need to travel back in time. Let’s fast rewind back to the fateful day of 27 December 2007. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto sowed the seeds of the eventual showdown between the ubiquitous establishment and NS. The physical elimination of Benazir Bhutto created a huge political vacuum in its wake. Politically anchored in the most powerful province with considerable track record on development, NS was organically positioned to plug the political void in the post-BB politics that began conspiring to pit the most popular Punjabi political munda (lad) against the establishment embedded in Central Punjab. However, he had to wait as the overwhelming sympathy vote put PPP back into power. True to its traditions, PPP focused on the development of constitutional infrastructure symbolised by 18th Amendment while its performance on other governance issues remained unenviable.

Enter the 2013 elections, the wait was over as NS was voted back into power by the electorate. It was the beginning of his eventual end at the hand of the establishment. On assuming power, he resumed his trademark development mantra and mega projects that have high value in the politics of optics. In tandem, the turbo-charged younger Sharif known for his administrative prowess set down to consolidate the vote bank in Punjab, by the combination of performance and media projection. Meanwhile, CPEC also entered the picture. The multi-billion-dollar Chinese project meant unprecedented capital inflows helping NS marry his development agenda with CPEC. The Chinese investment of the Himalayan proportion meant rapid and widespread infrastructure-building activity that would translate into revival of economic activity leading to economic growth and human development. The critical convergence of CPEC with the re-entry of NS as the PM, created an unprecedented political dynamic. Money for his high-visibility development agenda was no longer any problem, he needed only time to materialise the mega projects needed for electoral projection and re-election in 2018. Here lay the problem.

The power of the establishment flows from the barrel of gun while the power of politicians comes not only from positive public opinion (constitutional legitimacy) but also performance legitimacy. By constructing the motorways, rolling out Yellow Taxi Scheme and other mega projects during his previous stints, he was able to build a concrete electoral base in central Punjab that enjoys preponderance in civil-military institutions. Politically, NS permeated the public perception in central Punjab-the powerhouse of Pakistan. Since he himself is the product of the system, he understood it all- what appealed and pleased the voter in Punjab.

Arguably, the idea of a popular Punjabi Munda perceived as a doer getting deeply entrenched in the collective imagination of central Punjab, began to unnerve the Estab whose systemic hegemony also draws strength from the same region. The critical mass being gathered by him, was a critical challenge to unconstitutional political role of the estab. and its systemic dominance. Democracy grows and gains public legitimacy with every electoral cycle as continued democratic rule leads to greater political socialisation of politicians and public while reducing the space for anti-democracy elements. According to the establishmentarian calculations , if Nawaz was allowed to rule interrupted with his development agenda coming to fruition despite all its lop-sidedness due to focus on brick-and-mortar infrastructure, it would decisively swing the public opinion in Punjab away from the estab to a popular Punjab-based politician who would emerge politically-impregnable if was voted back in 2018 elections.

The establishmentarian anxiety is understandable because NS is the blend of all that can empower a Pakistani politician to shift the domestic balance of power to the elected public representatives. The political munda is not any ordinary politician. He is popular, Muslim, Sunni and male. To top it all, he is a Punjabi, that too from Central Punjab. However, the paradigm shift in political dynamics was taking place in country’s heartland not in the hinterland. This threatened the systemic supremacy of the estab because NS as the fourth time PM would have meant greater civilian control and further consolidation of pro-democracy constituency in Punjab. Therefore, something had to be done to clip his growing wings that allowed NS to fly high in skies of Punjab after his return to power in the post-BB politics of Pakistan. Thus, we witnessed the first alleged joint venture of the Umpire and his team in form of Dharna that NS survived thanks to PPP’s critical support to the ruling party. NS emerged down but was not out. Then came the Panama Papers in 2016 when the Lady Luck intervened on the behalf of the estab baying for his political blood. It was the golden opportunity to finish the unfinished job of decapitating the PML (N).

Through media manipulation, he was pillorised as a political tumour in the body politics of Pakistan. Subsequently, the political surgery was accomplished with judicial knife. His fate was sealed with unprecedented political consequences for his party members and the first family as his political missteps let the ball in the court of JIT. Needless to repeat what and how it has been transpiring since then. The arrogance of power and failure of imagination to gauge the desperation and determination of the ‘Get-Nawaz’ forces, prevented NS from finding some political solution to preempt his ouster.

The establishmentarian paranoia of NS winning back the public mandate in 2018 elections, stood vindicated by the emergence of PML (N) as the single largest party in Punjab amid all the political engineering of the powers-that-be. Given the fact that whole system was arrayed against the pariah party, NS newly minted narrative of ‘vote-ko-izat-do’ (respect the vote) resonated with the voters across the land of five rivers. With media in chains, independent judges in the dock, opposition politicians in jail and masses disillusioned, the narrative has gained greater traction across the country. Since then, the establishmentarian reliance on madness to politically fossilise NS has turned out to be counterproductive in every way.

First, NS, once the poster child of the establishment has been beaten into becoming a revolutionary with the stronger counternarrative that enjoys support from Khyber to Karachi with the central Punjab as the most important addition to the anti-estab chorus. Today, you hate him or love him, but he has been transformed into an indelible political fact as greatness has been imposed upon a reluctant democrat by the other side’s ham-handed tactics. The continued political repression continues to further entrench him into the collective psyche of Punjab. Second, NS has found his successor in Maryam who stands Benazir-ised acting not only as the amplifier of his embattled father but also emerging as a charismatic leader in her own right. Third, Party’s core remains intact and stands by its supremo. The Noonis are getting jiyalise-ed. The Younger Sharif’s perennial penchant for compromise push for rapprochement with the estab has turned out to be sterile. Fourth, the involvement of the ruling party’s own members in mega corruption scandals in addition to the alleged abuse of power for making a huge overseas fortune by a retired employee of a powerful organisation, has morally and politically punctured the anti-corruption mantra beyond repair. The pot calling the kettle black, has lost its appeal now.

Fifth, as attested by the rise of political, social ,student and feminist activism, the establishment’s own artificially created sacrosanct status is no longer unchallenged as its monopoly on the narrative driven, has been broken by the power of social media that gives wings to counternarratives of all shades. The people across the Land of Pure are converging on the demand for human security overshadowed by the Establishmentarian obsession with state security. Sixth, the ‘hybrid’ democracy has been unable to create performance legitimacy as the economic freefall, runaway inflation and epic bad governance especially in Punjab, has disenchanted the public. Further, the increasing the financial crunch and loss of economic sovereignty has long-term consequences for our defence too. Last but not the least, the lesser anticipated by-product of the ongoing political witch-hunt is the rise of the JUI-F leader as the ‘Iron Maulana ‘ causing serious headache to the estab., owing to his Pan-Pakistan street power almost as disciplined and motivated as any professional military. He has arrived as the master politician without any political weightage in the parliament. The Iron Man with years of the experience of political collusion with the estab., has got the most potent instrument of religion weaponised and used by the powers-that-be since ages in Pakistan. So, he knows full well that diamond cuts diamond.

To be sure, the battle lines are drawn, gladiators are named and out with daggers drawn whereas Bilawal Bhutto Zardari with anti-estab. DNA, is caught up in the dilemma of preserving his fortress Sindh and be counted in the brewing political Panipat. Can we avert the approaching political Armageddon? Of course, yes! The only way out of the blind alley is de-escalation by all sides, self-introspection and giving democracy a genuine chance to evolve organically. Hey, you all, watch out and step back into your respective constitutional realms! Modi has recently got some brand-new Rafael stuff for aerial-acrobatics on Diwali.

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