If you missed out the action-packed week in Pakistan, you missed out on something very critical: our country’s unmistakable lurch in the right direction. The air is heavy with hope, anticipation and a whiff of fear.
Sharmeen won, Qadri hanged, Kamal returned. Sandwiched between these events was the reaction to them: joy, fury, confusion, speculation. But through this turbulence emerged a distinct pattern: the State is back in control.
Notice the discourse. In the last seven days Pakistan feverishly debated Sharmeen Chinoy’s Oscar and the issue of honour killings. Simultaneously, Pakistan dissected the decisive decision of the government to send Mumtaz Qadri to the gallows, and the ensuing reaction from the clerics. All this while Pakistan was delving deep into the pros and cons of the trend-setting Women’s Protection Bill legislated by the Punjab Assembly. And then Pakistan locked itself into a frantic discussion over the return of Mustafa Kamal and the shenanigans of the MQM. That’s enough news ammo to last a month.
What’s going on here?
Plenty, actually. Sharmeen’s second Oscar is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the Prime Minister’s embrace of the cause espoused in the film: the curse of ‘honour’ killings. Sharmeen making Pakistan proud twice on the biggest international platform is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the Prime Minister committing to legislation against the curse of ‘honour’ killings.
The Women’s Protection Bill is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the government of the largest province pushing it through the assembly without being apologetic or defensive about it. According protection to victims of domestic abuse is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the PML-N absorbing the blowback from its natural allies among the clergy.
Mumtaz Qadri’s hanging is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the State’s refusal to cede any space to the clergy in the wake of the event. Sending a self-confessed murderer with a cult-following to the gallows is a big deal, but what is even a bigger deal is the State sending a clear message to the clergy that laws of the land will trump appeals to religiously-inspired emotions.
Fair to ask then: Is Nawaz Sharif in mortal danger of becoming a good man? Is he transforming into a Liberal?
The ‘L’ word itself is enough to send the clergy into a tailspin. The moment Sharif uttered the word during a speech in the context of modernising Pakistan, clerics pounced on him. In the days of yore, Sharif would have beaten a hasty retreat. This time he just ignored them like a minor annoyance.
As he did when the clerics howled over the Women Protection Bill; or when they screamed over the Sharmeen award; or when they worked themselves into a royal fury over Qadri’s hanging. Clerics clearly had a very bad week.
So what is Sharif thinking? What’s his game plan? Why is he stepping out of his political comfort zone to promote progressive and enlightened causes? How is he growing a spine to fight against terrorism and obscurantism?
The theory goes something like this: Nawaz Sharif knows he’s the master and commander of the political landscape as it exists today. With the PTI subdued by its own contradictions and the PPP having hacked itself from the waist downwards, Sharif faces no threat today or even in the near future. He is comfortable enough, secure enough and confident enough to take big decisions, and plan for the future — the political future that awaits him, his family and his party.
The landscape he surveys sprouts a rainbow-like ideological spectrum ranging from the extreme right (i.e. clerics) to the supposedly liberal, progressive parties (i.e. ANP, PPP, MQM). Here’s the thing though: both the so-called right and left have bled electoral strength and are limping across the landscape like weak shadows of their former selves. Sharif sees ceded space. Sharif likes what he sees. He believes he can occupy this space on the ideological spectrum vacated by these weakened parties. He has the strength, the time, and the powers of the executive to foray into this space like a conquering general.
He’s got his Punjab constituency under his belt. The centre-right, urban middle class is solid Sharif vote bank. Imran Khan raided this base but has so far failed to make a serious dent. In the rural areas, the Sharif juggernaut has invested three decades in clan-biradri networks to retain control of the vote. The bulk of the Punjab conservative voter remains in the Sharif camp.
While competing for this vote bank, Imran Khan had also appealed initially to the liberal, progressive, left-of-centre voter that traditionally gravitated to parties like the PPP, the MQM and the ANP. But somewhere during his political evolution, Khan lurched towards the extreme right lunatic fringe that considered the TTP as our misguided brothers who meant well. By doing so, he stepped on his own IED and blew up his prospects of championing progressive causes.
Now, enter Sharif. What better for him than to retain his conservative Punjabi vote bank and attract new voters by extending his appeal to those within the liberal and progressive spectrum? In the last week or so, the PML-N has received accolades from circles that were used to calling him a tool of the Establishment and hostage to right-wing reactionaries.
Smart politics is on display.
Diffident voters may yet stay skeptical, but they will not miss the rebranding of Nawaz Sharif that is underway: A solidly centrist, certifiably conservative, electorally strong leader gradually being re-painted as modern enough, competent enough, experienced enough, liberal enough, enlightened and broad minded enough to appeal to the broadest possible vote bank in the country.
The PML-N insiders calculate that if this re-branding of their leader is done right, his competitors will look like pygmies compared to his stature and appeal. Perhaps Sharif has reached a stage in his life when he’s actually thinking beyond elections and focusing more on his legacy. Can he beat the system to elicit genuine change through liberal and progressive politics?
In many ways, Sharif is the system. He then only needs to change himself. Did we witness a glimmer of this change in the last seven days?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2016.