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The walking dead

September 30, 2017

AFTER the excitement over the by-election in Lahore’s NA-120 had died down, pundits began wondering about the significance of the recent emergence of a new political outfit, the Milli Muslim League.

This rebranded version of Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaatud Dawa has thus far not been registered as a political party by the ECP. However, an MML-backed candidate stood as an independent and although a distant fourth managed to get 5,800 votes, beating the PPP. The MML’s indirect entry in the race, officially opposed by the government, also drew comment and criticism from around the world.

Hafiz Saeed insists he has never been charged with any crime, even though both India and the US accuse him of being the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that left over 160 dead. Despite a $10 million bounty on his head, Hafiz Saeed maintains a high profile in extremist circles, and is free to carry out his political activities. Every once in a while, when international pressure mounts, he is placed under house arrest, a restriction that does not appear to inconvenience him in any way.

But it’s not the possibility that his group could form a legitimate political party that bothers me: after all, many alleged conmen and killers have contested (and won) elections in the past. What interests me is the name he has chosen for his new party.

Over the years, the Muslim League has been a refuge for all manner of rogues and desperadoes. Ever since the All-India Muslim League was dissolved in December 1947 after the party had achieved its objective of creating a new state, all future iterations of the League have traded on the name to gain a measure of respectability.

Muslim League factions have been a refuge for all manner of rogues.

Although General Ayub Khan dissolved the Pakistan Muslim League, together with all other political parties, when he seized power in a coup in 1958, he named his own party the Convention Muslim League. Ironically, his main opposition came from the Council Muslim League.

To fight the 1988 elections, Nawaz Sharif called his party the Pakistan Muslim League, and later tacked on an ‘N’ to distinguish it from the other versions that had multiplied like rabbits. At last count, we had the PML (Q), a vehicle for the Chaudhrys of Gujrat who formed the king’s party to serve as General Musharraf’s handmaiden after he decided to enter politics.

Then there’s something called PML (Functional), although I’m not sure what is functional about it. After Zia left us in a fireball, his son Ijazul Haq set up the PML (Zia) that seems to have a membership of one. Another tonga party is Sheikh Rashid’s Awami Muslim League. A relatively recent entry into the fold is Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League, a party that does not appear to be the vehicle for a return to power that the ex-dictator had hoped it would be.

I might have missed a few mutations of the Muslim League, but the one thing they all seem to share is a deeply conservative worldview. In its earlier incarnation, the League also had an inbuilt pro-West orientation that led Pakistan into the US-led anti-Communist camp. Later versions, by contrast, have a distinctively Jamaat-i-Islami outlook.

Apart from Nawaz Sharif’s rift with the defence establishment, other League splinters have tended to be natural partners for coup-makers as they have realised they will never be able to get into power on their own steam.

The different versions of the Muslim League have no ideology or vision, but are driven by the desire of their leaders to achieve even a small slice of power. They use the name in the hope that some of its history and charisma might rub off on them.

Like zombies, these parties shamble onwards, blind to the needs of the day. The fact that their founders do not have the imagination to choose distinctive names says a great deal about our political system. Jinnah must be turning in his grave to be associated, no matter how distantly, with the likes of Nawaz Sharif, Sheikh Rashid and Ijazul Haq.

In horror movies, when the walking dead burst out of their graves, they shuffle off in search of living victims. Even when they are shot or stabbed, they continue on their shambolic, terrifying path.

Is this the future for Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N? Traditionally, the Muslim League has been the party of power, and fractures in opposition. Without ideological moorings, members are easily coaxed to jump ship if they catch the whiff of power.

Now it is being squeezed by the judiciary, the army, Imran Khan and a hostile media. How it will withstand this multipronged attack remains to be seen. Without friends and allies, it might join the ranks of failed and forgotten Leagues from the past.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2017