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Political turncoats

June 23, 2019

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DURING the budget debate in the National Assembly on Friday, MNA Khawaja Asif urged all political parties not to allow “people to sneak into them from the back door”. A PML-N stalwart himself, Mr Asif remarked that political “turncoats” had created discord in parliament through hateful speeches which, he said, were “aimed at pleasing rulers”. “If you want to include them [outsiders] in your parties, do not give them front seats, as sitting in the front row is the right of diehard genuine leaders of the parties,” he said, in reference to those who shift political loyalties from one party to another whenever the opportunity arises.

Mr Asif’s impassioned plea to his fellow MNAs is heartening at one level — yet also deeply ironic, as there is hardly any political outfit in Pakistan that has refrained from accepting party shifters into its ranks. After all, the term ‘lota’ — a colloquialism for those who hop from one party to another — was coined in the 1990s at a time when the bulk of the PML left Nawaz Sharif in the aftermath of his sacking. Surprisingly, when Mr Sharif was restored to office by the courts, the same people returned to the party and were accepted — an exercise that laid the foundations of the lota culture that prevails today. No doubt it is the democratic right of politicians to choose a party of their liking. However, their blatant lack of consistency as far as political ideology goes is questionable — especially since they are vying to represent millions of citizens, with many of them also seeking public office. There are far too many examples of such individuals in our political culture — whether it is Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who went from the PML-N to the PPP when they governed, and who is now in the PTI, or the likes of Fawad Chaudhry, who was once Gen Musharraf’s media man, then a PPP and now a vocal PTI representative. Even a stalwart like Javed Hashmi, after years of lending dedicated support to Nawaz Sharif, ditched the PML-N for the PTI as the grass appeared greener under Imran Khan’s banner. Similarly, the PML-Q, once a part of the Sharifs, broke away to become part of the pro-military Musharraf family and a major detractor of the Sharifs. The PTI today, including much of the federal cabinet, is full of floor-crossers — a far cry from the promised naya Pakistan that Mr Khan is so fond of talking about.

The practice of switching parties is often made fun of, but, on a more serious note, it hurts democracy and weakens political parties. Khawaja Asif’s remarks should prompt self-reflection within all parties — including his own — about their tendency to encourage this culture of opportunistic shifts in loyalty. Politicians who are driven by self-interest only contribute to the perversion of the political system as their motives are aligned with convenience instead of reform.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2019