Pakistani politics has often produced a number of charismatic doyens. Most of them were rushed into the limelight by a curious mixture of genuine populist adulation and some discreet support from certain prominent sections of the ‘establishment.’
The most famous example in this respect is that of Z.A. Bhutto, a young, ambitious and articulate minister in Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s regime (1958-69). Bhutto was carefully mentored by Ayub as a possible successor, trained to continue the field marshal’s policies based on a liberal social outlook, a modernist understanding of faith and a pro-business economic disposition.
Right-wing populism and political glory sometimes fizzles out mysteriously
Said to have “pushed Ayub” into a war with India in 1965, Bhutto was ousted from the government when he criticised Ayub for letting the war end in a stalemate. This was when Bhutto experienced his first taste of populist support.
He soon formed his own party, the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party, which swept the 1970 elections in West Pakistan’s two largest provinces. Bhutto had also become popular among many young military officers. As one of the most detailed studies of the 1970 elections by noted social scientist Philip E. Jones showed, not only did Bhutto’s PPP receive votes from Punjab and Sindh’s working-class and lower-middle-class segments, it also did well in the country’s cantonment areas where a majority of military officers lived.
What’s more, in his 2001 memoir The Mirage of Power, Dr Mubashir Hasan, a founding member of the PPP mentioned that it was a group of disgruntled military officers who ‘invited Bhutto’ to take over as president after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle.
Bhutto’s rise had been dramatic. It was largely prompted by a combination of establishmentarian nurturing and then a sudden burst of mass adoration. This produced a contradictory character who was a brilliant politician but one who could not tolerate even the slightest tinge of opposition. In the end he was brought down by his illusory sense of untouchability when another set of military men toppled him and sent him to the gallows by way of a highly controversial trial.
Nawaz Sharif was another such doyen. A young member of the centrist Tehreek-i-Istiqlal (TI) in the 1970s, Nawaz, in a Machiavellian move, brought himself close to the reactionary dictatorship of Gen Zia (1977-88). After appointing Nawaz, the chief minister of Punjab in 1985, Zia began to nurture him as a nemesis of the PPP in the Punjab.
Nawaz became PM in 1990. However, when he was dismissed by President Ishaq in 1993, Nawaz savoured his first taste of populist approbation. Like Bhutto, he too broke away from the orbit of his mentors, thus soiling the combination of quiet establishmentarian backing and loud populist adulation. The results were drastic but not as terrible as the one faced by Bhutto.
Imran Khan, chief of the centre-right Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is the most current result of the above-mentioned combination. But many experts believe that unlike Bhutto and Nawaz, his rise is destined to end with a whimper.
Veteran journalist Nusrat Javeed recently said on Dawn News that Imran’s fate would be the same as Asghar Khan’s. Though damning, this is a rather insightful remark because Asghar Khan was once almost as popular as Z.A. Bhutto, but his flame extinguished in the most unremarkable manner.
Asghar Khan was a celebrated commander-in- chief of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the 1950s. Once an Ayub supporter, he began to criticise the Ayub regime in 1968 for creating economic disparities and corruption. He demanded that the regime face accountability.
This was when the Ayub regime was facing a protest movement. Asghar’s popularity graph quickly shot up. In his book Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power, Philip E. Jones writes that at one point Asghar Khan’s gatherings were drawing more people than even Bhutto’s rallies — so much so that in 1969 when Bhutto invited Asghar to join the PPP, the latter responded by saying, “It is you who should join me.”
Asghar Khan and Bhutto led the charge against Ayub in West Pakistan. Both were not only popular among the youth, but they were also being hailed by young military officers.
But Asghar Khan formed his party just months before the 1970 election. And in another blunder, the party’s name could not appear on the ballot papers. People did not know who the party’s candidates were. What’s more, a young PPP candidate defeated Asghar Khan in a National Assembly constituency of Rawalpindi.
By 1975 Asghar Khan was able to revive his political standing and his party was joined by future political starlets such as Nawaz Sharif, Aitzaz Ahsan, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, Mushahid Hussain, Akbar Bugti and former PPP men such as Hanif Ramay and Ahmad Raza Kasuri. A month before the 1977 election, TI agreed to join the PNA, an anti-PPP electoral alliance which also included the country’s three leading religious parties. In a fiery campaign speech in Attock, Asghar told a large audience that he would not only defeat Bhutto but also hang him in public on the Attock Bridge!
Just when it seemed Asghar’s burst of fame was over, he put his party in the forefront against the Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77). The party — the Tehreek-i-Istaqlal (TI) — described itself as a “modern democratic” one. It opposed Bhutto’s economic policies and “dictatorial attitude.”
By 1975, Asghar Khan was able to revive his political standing and his party was joined by future political starlets such as Nawaz Sharif, Aitzaz Ahsan, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, Mushahid Hussain, Akbar Bugti and former PPP men such as Hanif Ramay and Ahmad Raza Kasuri.
A month before the 1977 election, TI agreed to join the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), an anti-PPP electoral alliance which also included the country’s three leading religious parties. In a fiery campaign speech in Attock, Asghar Khan told a large audience that he would not only defeat Bhutto but also hang him in public on the Attock Bridge!
Asghar Khan managed to win an NA seat (this time from Karachi), but the PNA came a distant second in the 1977 election. Asghar Khan accused Bhutto of rigging the vote and the PNA launched a concentrated protest movement which turned violent. Bhutto opened talks with the alliance but Asghar Khan refused to meet him. So the heads of three religious parties led the talks for PNA.
In one of his last major interviews, veteran member of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) the late Professor Ghafoor told Geo TV that just when the talks were heading for an amicable solution, Zia imposed Martial Law. Professor Ghafoor added that it was the PNA’s two “secular leaders”, Begum Naseem Wali and Asghar Khan, who tried to “sabotage the talks” and “hailed the military take-over.” It was ironic because Zia’s was a reactionary coup.
In his 2005 autobiography, Asghar Khan refuted this claim by suggesting that it was the JI which joined Zia’s first cabinet. He wrote that TI would have swept the promised 1979 election, but Zia never held the vote. Some believe that Asghar Khan was used by the anti-Bhutto civilian and establishmentarian segments and then discarded.
Asghar Khan’s graph plummeted again, so much so that he had to reconcile with Bhutto’s daughter Benazir. During the 1990 election he allied TI with the PPP, but lost the election against Nawaz Sharif in Lahore’s NA-95 constituency.
So from 1990 onward, the man twice put on the brink of political glory by the combination of discreet establishmentarian nods and wild populist support, quietly faded into political oblivion.
In 2012, the now tiny TI merged with Imran Khan’s PTI.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 13th, 2017