Parties must pause, think

By Abbas Nasir

The deed is done. As could have been anticipated, the opposition political parties have come in for some stick at the hands of their own supporters — and this has been evident on social media. Whether this will make the parties change course is another matter.

The reaction of opposition politicians has been varied, even when they belong to the same party. For example, in the PPP’s case, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari described his party’s decision as a victory of parliamentary procedures. This at a time when a number of its leaders privately told me of their ‘shame’.

So apart from Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, not many in the party saw this is as a win. Among the exceptions was Senator Raza Rabbani, the man long seen and hailed as an icon in the struggle for civilian supremacy. He more or less echoed his young leader’s sentiments. On the opposite end, Qamar Zaman Kaira appeared unhappy, but remained guarded in expressing himself.

PML-N’s Rana Sanaullah was quite open in saying that he was aware of the unhappiness among party supporters as it was an ‘unpopular’ decision, and added this was also due to the fact that the leadership had not explained the decision to the rank and file.

It is unfair to blame the shirtless supporter who remains committed to the democratic process when he/she gets mixed signals from the leadership.

When reporter Mona Khan from the web-based news site Independent Urdu asked him if this was a ‘setback’ to the PML-N’s ‘vote ko izzat do’ narrative, the wily politician said this criticism was the ‘voter’ expressing his/her will publicly as earlier such matters were settled quietly in the corridors of power without any public debate.

He clarified that he was not aware of what happened in the London meeting where the decision was reached as he was in Pakistan at the time, but all he could say was that PML-N parliamentary leader Khwaja Asif conveyed the leadership’s decision to the parliamentarians and they complied.

When asked if this was a win of Shahbaz Sharif’s narrative over that of Nawaz Sharif’s, Rana Sanaullah denied the former had a narrative, even as he conceded that Shahbaz Sharif has always had, and will continue to have, his own ‘opinion’ on issues.

While Rana Sanaullah’s views made for interesting reading, Khawaja Asif’s reaction to the anger being expressed by party supporters on social media in particular was shocking.

Without acknowledging that some of the PML-N’s social media activists have been picked up by unknown plainclothesmen in the recent past and released after days of torture, Khwaja Asif lashed out at those sitting outside the country and not having to face the music themselves while tweeting.

He also denounced the critics by citing India’s example where people have come out in droves to protest against the BJP government’s moves to enact discriminatory laws and said that here when Mian Nawaz Sharif was critically ill in hospital, not more than a hundred supporters appeared in the streets.

Do you remember one call by the party leadership at any stage urging the public to come out on the streets in a show of support? I do not. This Khwaja Asif appeared so defeated that he did not even bear a remote resemblance to the Khwaja Asif one remembered from the 2002 National Assembly.

Who would not recall his roar in that house when he challenged the real rulers of the country in no uncertain terms and won accolades for speaking his mind without fear? And for the same man now to be piling the blame on supporters who have demonstrably been let down by the leadership was a bit much.

Will anyone remind him that the day Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz returned after their conviction by an accountability court before the elections, there was a huge crowd of supporters gathered in Lahore to welcome them?

Shahbaz Sharif who was leading that rally stayed well away from the airport till his brother and niece had been taken into custody and transferred to a plane which took them to the federal capital and prison. Despondent supporters dispersed soon afterwards.

It is unfair to blame the shirtless supporter who remains committed to the party and to the democratic process when he/she gets mixed signals from the leadership. When the leader and his daughter appear defiant and the leader’s own brother seems inclined not to fight, how can the worker be blamed?

Perhaps, this was because the pacifists in the party had bought the line given to them that if they behaved well, they would be given the right to govern in the Punjab that had always been the jewel in the crown of the PML-N. It is another matter that to have believed a half promise like that was extremely foolhardy as all the facts on the ground were militating against that happening. How could any game plan that saw the Sharifs ousted from office and hounded, and the media being tightly controlled to load the dice against them, include giving them such a cherished slice of the cake?

Anyway, what is done is done. There are two ways going forward. Parties claiming to stand for democracy would definitely gain from democratising themselves. If Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz, the keepers of the PML-N vote bank, can’t lead the party why not open up the task to others?

There are leaders like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi whose short tenure as prime minister and his conduct since then has been exemplary. He has demonstrated how a principled democrat must be. Why can’t he or someone like him be considered to lead the party?

It is of course for the parties to decide such issues within, rather than these being anybody else’s call. If the parties are indeed once again, prepared to play the junior partner in the power equilibrium, having abandoned their more ambitious constitutional goals, then we are in for a long period of hybrid structures.



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