The problem of spine in Pakistani politics

September 26, 2003


Why in our country do politicos and other people in the public eye switch sides so easily? They are given jobs or raised to positions of passing eminence by one government. No sooner is that government gone - usually sent packing by the guardians of our ideological and geographical frontiers - than they, without so much as a backward glance, move to the winning side.

The unseemly haste with which such manoeuvres are accomplished is of course breathtaking. But it's also baffling. It is not just a question of external loyalty to a party or leader. Most of our parties and leaders don't merit much loyalty. But at least one should be true to oneself. Switching sides when the weather turns bad is less self-preservation and more a form of self-betrayal, an admission of hollowness inside.

It is an article of faith with the lower orders that you should be faithful to the salt you eat. With the higher orders worshipping the rising sun seems to be the highest form of virtue, a course of action justified at the bar of realism or its near-cousin, pragmatism.

Nothing else explains the birth and rise of the Q or Qainchi League. Most of the stalwarts in this party were flag-bearers of the Nawaz League. Many of them held important positions in Nawaz Sharif's government and usually let no opportunity go by without singing Nawaz Sharif's praises.

Well, lo and behold, the day came when that government fell and from the Prime Minister's House Nawaz Sharif found himself in army custody charged with a crime - hijacking - carrying the death penalty. The military agencies, more at home with politics than anything connected with intelligence gathering, got busy and started working on the Nawaz League. Soon from the same politicos who had held high office under Nawaz Sharif and had sung his praises, came loud voices of disagreement with Nawaz and his policies.

When I was MPA in Punjab, an error I am unlikely to repeat, it was funny seeing the antics of a Lahore mafia, comprising MPAs from Lahore, around the chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif. In season and out these guys would be proving themselves more loyal than the king. If any MPA was in the least bit critical of what was then known as 'the heavy mandate', (where the hell has it gone?), the members of this mafia would be on their feet hollering and brandishing their fists.

Well, guess what? The Nawaz government fell and much before anyone else, this mafia almost to a man was the first to bolt to the other side. I have seen switchovers before but this one left me gasping.

Let me make it plain that there was little to commend the Nawaz government. It made more than its share of blunders and by its actions paved the way for another military takeover. But as long as he was in power no one pointed out his mistakes. And few had the guts to speak up at party meetings. If anyone felt any disquiet he kept it closely to his chest. Only when Nawaz Sharif was down and out did these patriots brush the crumbs from their clothes and walk over to the other side.

Time-servers are bad in two ways. They don't speak up when the sun is shining on someone. And they walk away when the clouds gather. Nawaz Sharif could have made a thousand blunders and they would still have stuck by him and sung his praises if he had remained in power. When he slipped from the greasy pole, their support slipped too.

Even if, and this is a big 'if', anyone among these ship-jumpers thought that Nawaz had blundered and brought his troubles on himself, the barest notions of honour should have dictated some semblance of steadfastness. Not so much for his sake as for their own. For when someone betrays a fallen comrade or a fallen leader, one is really betraying oneself.

Everyone in the PPP is not taken with Benazir's qualities. There is a large body of PPP loyalists who have no illusions about her or her illustrious husband. But they are still with the party because they have been with it for a long time and think that they owe it to themselves to remain steadfast.

Was Hitler worth fighting for? Many Germans thought he was when the Second World War began. When the tide of war started turning by 1943, the feeling amongst Germans grew that Hitler was leading them to disaster. But right until the end the German armed forces kept on fighting and fighting magnificently, not so much out of loyalty to Hitler as out of loyalty to their uniform and to the soldier's code of honour.

The same was true of the Russian soldier who fought not so much for Bolshevism or Stalin as for his motherland.

The Americans do no service to themselves or their understanding of the quagmire they have got themselves into in Iraq when they blame the Iraqi resistance on "Saddam remnants". In Iraq a national resistance is taking shape, a resistance loyal to Iraq not Saddam Hussein. Indeed the surest way to injure if not kill this resistance would be for Saddam to lead it. If Saddam were captured or killed, this resistance, far from dying down, would gather more strength.

But the thing I am pointing to in Pakistani politics is not confined to the Nawaz League. It runs like a constant through our history. Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad dismissed Khawaja Nazimuddin as prime minister, and most of the ministers in the dismissed cabinet felt no qualms about accepting office under Nazimuddin's successor, Muhammad Ali Bogra.

When Field Marshal Ayub Khan - famous more for his political than military exploits - set about forming a king's party, there was no shortage of Muslim Leaguers who hoisted him on their shoulders and proclaimed the birth of what came to be known as the Convention Muslim League. Since then the name Convention League has stuck as a description of all king's parties, the Q League now rallying to General Musharraf's support being the latest incarnation of the Convention League.

Four things Pakistani dictators have never lacked. (1) The support of a section of the political class which readily declares that the country has been saved. (2) The support of the judiciary which legitimizes the new order at the altar of necessity. (3) The assistance of some of the country's best legal brains who, while working closely with the judiciary, strive to provide some sort of legal cover to what at best is a coup d'etat. (4) And the support of a section of journalists who are ready to sing hosannas to the new leader and say that he is the messiah the nation was waiting for.

How many times has this routine not been repeated? How many more times are we destined to see it repeated?

Why this problem of spine or rather the lack of spine in our body-politic? Has it something to do with our soil or our climate?

If overriding necessity were behind this lack of spine it would still be something. We could say that such and such a person was jumping ship to save his skin or better his lot.

Most of the time, however, fair-weather loyalists are comfortable people who lack nothing. They simply want to be on the right side of power.

To use Nawaz Sharif as a metaphor, suppose he were to make a comeback - something not about to happen anytime soon. Chances are, the very people who were the first to leave him and join the Q League, will be the first to give a departing kick to the Q League and, jostling with each other and using their elbows, line up to shower him with rose petals. What's more, they'll get away with it.