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Sharif politics

November 10, 2015


The writer is a political and development economist.
The writer is a political and development economist.

BY winning the recent Punjab LG polls, the Sharifs have re-demonstrated their political hold in the province and by extension in Pakistan. Counting tenures as chief executives federally or provincially, the Sharifs have ruled Pakistan longer than any dictator or political family (party-wise, the PPP is still ahead). Thus, reviewing the secret recipe behind their longevity, their impact and future politics prospects is critical.

Punjab and Mohajir elites had ruled Pakistan since independence. Given their clout in the military and bureaucracy and their numerical disadvantage vis-à-vis Bengalis, they preferred to subjugate politics and rule non-representatively. So much did they neglect politics that they did not produce any major politician for three decades, these emerging then from neglected ethnicities only, eg, Mujib, Bhutto, etc.

However, resistance from neglected ethnicities made it impossible to subjugate politics further, leading to credible elections in 1971.

With the 1971 partition, Punjab attained numerical majority, removing a major problem with democracy from the Punjab elite’s viewpoint. After Bhutto was sidelined, Punjab’s elite aimed to utilise their new numerical advantage to also capture political power, given its increasing challenge to traditional establishment power. The prolonged ethnic politics of others had also fanned Punjabi ethnic consciousness. Thus, the hunt for a Punjab-based politician was launched in earnest, which unearthed Nawaz Sharif.

Like the Bushes, the Sharifs lack the ‘vision thing’ or strong ideology.

Given his background, Zia probably preferred someone from Punjab’s then smaller urban business class rather than from landed families. Sharif’s deep conservatism, religiosity and apparent docility also probably swayed Zia.

But, subsequently, the Sharifs have managed to remain Punjab’s first political choice for three decades despite lost establishment support, long exile and challenges from the Chaudhrys and Imran. This is surprising given that they largely practise patronage politics which does not usually confer deep personal loyalties since anyone offering greater patronage can steal support.

This the Chaudhrys attempted under Musharraf but their patronage networks collapsed once the Sharifs returned, revealing a preference within Punjab to take patronage from the Sharifs rather than others.

The Sharifs enjoy personal loyalty in Punjab, based perhaps on their image as Punjab’s first popular leaders and their ordeals under Musharraf, an outsider general. Thus they do not win primarily through rigging, contrary to PTI claims.

Their ability to defeat Imran in Punjab is easier to understand since Imran’s tirades against political corruption and dynastic politics appeal only to a small middle-class which thrives on merit, where progress depends on what you know. However, the majority, deprived of the opportunity to attain merit, survives on patronage where progress depends on who you know, not what you know.

Since the majority actually benefits immediately from political corruption and dynastic politics and lacks the luxury of long-term perspectives, Imran’s tirades fail to sway them. Finally, there may be the calculation that dividing the Punjab vote may open the doors for outside parties to win federally, as done by PPP earlier.

Despite ruling Pakistan for so long, the Sharifs have surprisingly left fewer major positive or negative imprints on Pakistan socially, politically or economically compared with shorter-serving but strongly ideological rulers like Bhutto and Zia. Like the Bushes, they lack the “vision thing” or strong ideology. In fact even policy work, the next level below ideology, leaves the Sharifs bored. Their forte is actually project-level work and thinking.

Thus, governance for them involves implementing a series of ad-hoc and disconnected projects rather than developing a strong ideological vision and sound policies to solve Pakistan’s myriad problems, which meanwhile keep growing under them.

Given that demographics will not change substantially immediately, the ability of other parties to successfully challenge PML-N federally in 2018 relates to unlikely eventualities: army action, family split or massive and numerous Model Town-type mistakes by the Sharifs. All other parties, including PTI, PPP, JI, JUI-F and Baloch nationalists, could form an electoral alliance against the Sharifs federally. But the chances of such disparate parties coming together are small. Even if they do, they must still jointly win 25-30pc of Punjab’s national seats, which also looks improbable presently. Thus, the Sharifs seem safe in Pakistani politics for now.

But is Pakistan safe under Sharif politics? Given that judgments must be comparative, one can take comfort in the fact that Pakistan will not do much worse under the Sharifs than under the other political or non-political options available at present.

The writer is a political and development economist.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2015