THE race for the Punjab crown is on. As results of Wednesday’s general election come in, the PTI has already laid a claim on power in the province. The PML-N is so far matching the PTI numbers seat for seat for the provincial assembly but it is obvious that Imran Khan is trying to avoid the big mistake that the PPP made after 2008. Asif Zardari had at that time refused to explore the option of having a coalition government in Punjab with the help of PML-Q. He paid a heavy price for that.
The PTI’s emergence is definitely a huge feat given the long and deeply entrenched presence of the PML-N in Punjab. But it is yet to be seen how many traditions the Imran Khan camp can actually break.
In three weeks’ time, Pakistanis are going to mark the 30th anniversary of an incident which opened the door on democracy in the country after an 11-year-long martial law. It was the death of Gen Ziaul Haq in a plane crash on August 17, 1988, which cleared the way for a party-based general election in October the same year. Pakistan has had no less than eight general polls since Zia — in 1988, 1990, 1993, 1997, 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2018. But the general’s ghost continues to haunt this land in many ways. The politicians — a whole school of them — who started off during the Zia years have had a profound impact on the politics of the country.
It is not that we have not had governments in Pakistan headed by hardened Zia opponents. The PPP, the chief Zia rival, has been in power at the centre for two shortened and one full term. Yet, it would appear that Benazir Bhutto and after her Asif Ali Zardari were unable to cleanse the country of the effects of the ‘11 dark years’ between 1977 and 1988.
Is the order that links all Punjab rulers in the last three decades and more under attack now? Can Punjab come out of the Zia era?
In the provinces as well, anti-Zia parties and individuals have been in power over these three decades. Sindh has been ruled by the PPP for so many terms. We have had a PPP-led coalition in Balochistan among governments by other parties that were opposed to Zia’s policies during his lifetime and which later had a chance to govern the province after his fall.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, even though Wali Khan and others had supported the army coup of 1977 that they later opposed, the regime might qualify an ANP-led government in post-Zia period in the province as a riposte to the general’s legacy. And in recent years, the PTI which ruled at the top of a coalition government in KP is very much presented as a post-Zia phenomenon.
The PTI is often described as a get-together of aspiring politicians who first emerged during Gen Musharraf’s rule. There is a qualification though to accepting the PTI as part of the group comprising politicians and parties who were ‘never’ allied with Gen Zia and who have since been in power. The PTI had as it partner in government in KP the Jamaat-i-Islami, which at one point was pivotal to Gen Zia’s efforts to consolidate his rule and to acquire a certain pious identity for his regime.
For long it was the PML-N which kept Gen Zia’s flag flying in KP, until it stumbled upon its new identity that had little room for celebrating the feats the party’s leaders had — proudly — helped their mentor perform through the 1980s. But the N-League as an heir to the dictator was most noticed and celebrated in Punjab. However, the politics in the province overall has followed a course over the last three decades where whoever came to power here had to be a graduate of the Zia school, including Arif Nakai, who was briefly the chief minister in a coalition installed by the PPP in 1995-96, and who had first entered the Punjab Assembly in 1985.
The PPP had its best shot at the slot of chief minister of Punjab in 1988. ‘Blue-blooded’ PPPites such as Faisal Saleh Hayat, Farooq Leghari and Salmaan Taseer were in line for the slot of Punjab chief minister, only to be edged out by Mian Nawaz Sharif. And when Mian Sahib was promoted to the chief executive’s post in Islamabad, he entrusted the chief minister’s office to Shahbaz Sharif.
The PPP, for the duration that it had a big presence in Punjab, kept trying to somehow dislodge the Sharifs, and when it managed to do so, it settled for a chief minister who had been to the same Zia nursery the Sharifs had gone to initially. Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, the PPP’s choice to head the coalition in Punjab, had been polished and nurtured under the Zia’s talent hunt scheme.
In the years to follow, the Sharifs were to be dethroned and exiled, only to be replaced by another bright Zia student by the name of Chaudhry Pervez Elahi. In 2002, as the Sharifs — the more favoured member of the old Zia school — returned and the PPP ruled against a coalition with the PML-Q, Pervez Elahi withdrew to his haveli in Gujrat, leaving Shahbaz Sharif to take charge. Zia’s tradition continued unbroken. In fact, in a way it was strengthened. The PPP reconfirmed the perennial existence of the Zia clout in Punjab when, forced to select a prime minister from the province, it settled for Yousuf Raza Gilani.
Is the order that links all Punjab rulers in the last three decades and more under attack now? Can Punjab come out of the Zia era? The province may be at the threshold of rule by a new party, the PTI. But are the people here going to get a chief minister trained under a headmaster other than the general whose influence this country cannot quite come out of? The trend may continue, if a very eager Shah Mahmood Qureshi, another Zia beneficiary who grew up during politics through the 1980s with fellow students such as Manzoor Wattoo, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Mian Nawaz Sharif, has his way.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2018