SOME important bits of Sindh have been connecting with Lahore in recent days, contributing not at all insignificantly to the growing gathering inside the powerful PML-N camp, which is drawing droves of new and old devotees from various parts of the country.
A few weeks ago, the Pir of Pagara gave audience here to those seeking more than simply his blessings for the coming general election, emphatically speaking about a coming together of the various factions of the Muslim League.
Last week it was the turn of Arbab Ghulam Rahim to partake of the pre-poll hospitality of the Punjab capital. He was sure to have an impact by making an appearance here and allowing himself to be counted on the list of influential individuals from deep inside Sindh who can stand up to the PPP in their territory.
The antidote to the PPP from Tharparkar who was handily exploited by Gen Pervez Musharraf during his long rule, was ostensibly in Lahore as the head of the PML-L. Arbab Rahim was here to try and create a positive impression about the Sharif monolith’s chances in Sindh. He addressed a PML-L meeting at the Alhamra but sitting in Lahore it is neither possible nor desirable to tell the PML-L and Pir Pagaro apart from the PML-N.
They may be important forces in their own areas on their own. From the Lahori prism, the true worth of the “influential figures” from Sindh gathering at the Sharif household lies in them helping the PML-N to press its credentials as an all-Pakistan party.
Pir Pagara does have his promise but since he is new to politics, his image will take time building up outside his home turf. By comparison, Arbab Rahim may have a smaller party at his disposal in Sindh but he bears the most prominent anti-PPP image in Lahore.
It is a reputation which is powerful enough under the charged pre-poll atmosphere to act as a cover for his hobnobbing with Gen Musharraf, the PML-N’s tormentor. That he was publicly humiliated and hounded out of the country by the PPP after the 2008 election is a huge plus in the context of his ties with the PML-N.
Arbab Rahim’s overall message was in sync with the display of unity in the ranks of leaguers which, we are reminded at this crucial stage, all think alike.
Consequently it was somewhat jarring to have him ask for an extension in the period between the completion of a term by a government and the staging of a general election. Instead of the existing 60-day deadline for the Election Commission of Pakistan to hold the polls, Arbab Rahim politely favoured a 90-day period.
He seemed to be suggesting that an extra month was sufficient for holding the outgoing rulers accountable, a task which in his judgment was better taken up before an election than after.
The substance in Arbab Rahim’s call — that a caretaker set-up is better equipped and is less likely to create controversy over accountability — drew indirect support from an unlikely source.
While the PML-L leader was here, the PPP launched a hunger strike for the implementation of the court verdict in the Asghar Khan case. The party’s government at the centre could have taken it up, but according to a PPP leader here it didn’t do that since it did not want to appear as persecuting its political opponents.
As dangerous “anti-democratic” proposals go, this one from Arbab Rahim could have generated fears of an uncertain future and of a prolonged interim set-up a few weeks ago.
Fortunately, however, the ominous signs the sceptics have been keen to read have failed to show up and everyone is too focused on the general election right now to be too bothered by someone’s personal preferences about the timing of the accountability.
The PML-N’s own focus at the moment was on ensuring the right choice for the caretaker prime minister. It was conscientiously trying to avoid the selection of someone who had had close ties with Gen Musharraf. It has kept formal if not actual distance from the erstwhile Musharraf henchmen lodged in the PML-L.
Nonetheless, where the crossing of the barrier has been necessary, the PML-N leadership has not been found wanting.
The latest is that just as Sheikh Waqas Akram, MNA from Jhang, has rediscovered his old leaguers’ link with the PML-N, the latter has chosen to ignore his ties with Musharraf, his party PML-Q and his stint as a minister in the government of an incorrigibly corrupt and inept PPP.
The crossover was on the cards despite all these unkind mentions of the PML-N’s links with Sheikh Waqas’s local rivals, the Sipah-i-Sahaba cadres. The talk about the chances of Sheikh Waqas siding with the PPP was not backed by the current trends in switching loyalties.
The biggest catch the PPP were able to secure in Punjab was that of the Rajas who have held the fort of Jhelum for the PML-N for many years. The mistake was soon rectified and the news from the Raja household indicated they were not prepared to sport the PPP colours for fear of hurting the sentiment of their supporters.
Sheikh Waqas’s switch to PML-N has once again brought to the fore the serious flaws in the expensive PPP policy based on an appeasement of its allies.
The Zardari leadership, renowned as it may be for its wisdom and tact, has been pampering PML-Q men like Sheikh Waqas at the cost of enfeebling the PPP’s politicians who could have done with some backing by the federal government.
Further, it has compromised its old popular image by alienating a Gabol in Lyari and a Dasti in Muzaffargarh. Quite clearly, as the PPP has been preaching reconciliation to its opponents, the allies it has been trying to please by snubbing Nabeel Gabol and denying Jamshed Dasti have proven equally capable of weakening the PPP.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.