National: Cornered but not quite

01 Jan 2020

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While the opposition remained in disarray through the year, Maulana Fazlur Rehman regained his position on the political scene with his sit-in.
While the opposition remained in disarray through the year, Maulana Fazlur Rehman regained his position on the political scene with his sit-in.

COURTS, parliament, hospitals, tentative agreements, accusations of last-minute betrayal – yet it is moot if 2019 lived up to its billing as a trend-setting year for Prime Minister Imran Khan. The tone had avowedly been set with the late-2018 arrest of Khwaja Saad Rafiq, a top-notch Pakistan Muslim League-N politician from Lahore. The accountability juggernaut that was to quickly run through the stables of the opposition in aid of an increased prison population, however, never materialised. The real dampener came towards the end of the year when some of the big fish being tried by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) managed to slip out of the net courtesy of bails.

Meanwhile, the proceedings in parliament were sluggish at best, due most significantly to an attitude by the government to view all opposition members of the elected houses as pariahs afflicted irredeemably with the corruption scourge. Some of the crucial tasks suffered badly because of the highly divisive, partisan politics in the National Assembly as well as the Senate. One very important job that could not be completed was the new nominations to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) against two outgoing members. Even more disappointing was the issuance of ordinances that betrayed a lack of working relationship between the treasury and the opposition inside the parliament.

The situation came to a head when the opposition threatened to bring a no-confidence motion against the deputy speaker of the National Assembly. A truce, a momentary one apparently, was reached, which allowed the members to debate a few pieces of legislation, instead of these being imposed on the Pakistanis through direct presidential orders. This concession in November was the best and, honestly, a bit surprising bargain struck by the opposition that had been a few months earlier – on August 1– badly defeated – despite having in-house majority – in a similar move to throw out Sadiq Sanjrani from the office of the chairman Senate.

That was the worst passage of 2019 for the opposition. By all counts and estimates, the opposition appeared certain to succeed in its effort to dislodge Mr Sanjrani, the man who had been plucked by fate out of nowhere to land one of the most prestigious jobs in the country. But all calculations were turned around and the show ended with the chairman Senate taking out the most magnanimous smiles out to befit the occasion after the move against him had been thwarted. Post-result, there was much talk about buying and selling of loyalties since the original count had clearly favoured the opposition. But those in the know understood that such protestations had little value.

The second half of the year was much better for opposition parties as many of the leading names in custody managed to slip out of the net courtesy of bails.

That no-confidence vote against the Senate chairman brought into full public gaze the fractures in the make-believe alliance of the opposition parties. Fingers were instantly pointed over the sell-out, and a few charged members of the PML-N galaxy went as far as regretting the moment when they had allowed themselves to be a partner in crime with the ‘most unreliable’ Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The old wounds exposed by the opposition’s Senate debacle put severe limits on just how far the opposition parties were willing to go hand in hand with each other. The suspicion bred apprehension and hesitancy, most prominently reflected in the lack of a single strategy on the part of the opposition when Maulana Fazlur Rehman launched his march on the capital in late October.

From the outset, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam chief was a bit short on assurances from the leaders of other parties about the lengths they were prepared to accompany him. Unlike Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the politicians on the opposition stage had avoided basing their reservations against the planned dharna in Islamabad in their disapproval of the use of the religion card by Maulana as a weapon against the establishment. The leader of the PML-N, undoubtedly the biggest political party in the country, tried to mask their lack of commitment to the march and sit-in to the differences inside the party, which, frankly, meant the disparity in the bold position held by Mian Nawaz Sharif and more measured cautious approach by Shahbaz Sharif.

But then there was this incident which seemed to change the equation, at least for those who were not very familiar with the internal machinations of the N-League. While appearing in a court for the hearing of a corruption case against him, Nawaz Sharif sternly announced his backing for Maulana’s raid on the seat of power. Not just this, he regretted having not followed the JUI chief’s advice to launch a protest campaign immediately after the ‘rigged’ 2018 general election.

If that was a promise that the PML-N all-in-all had made to an old friend specialising in making and breaking governments, what greeted Maulana Fazl in Lahore as he arrived there at the head of his long march, must rank as a more crude letdown among the list of betrayals in the history of politics in Pakistan. As Nawaz lay in hospital fighting a grim battle with a constantly plummeting platelets count, his minders in family and party saw to it that the rabble-rouser Maulana with whom he shared a history of common struggle was never able to sneak through for crucial meeting. Once this disconnect between the two politicians was ensured, it was clear that the PML-N was not going to place at the disposal of this forward commander in the opposition’s rank the numbers – and the diversity which came with it – that could tilt the scale.

Maulana Fazl’s roar inside capital territory has to be the single biggest challenge thrown by the opposition to a government possessed by its own idea of trying and punishing the corrupt. The ramifications of his advance continue to be felt for in whatever significant or insignificant takes place in Islamabad and its vicinity – despite the fact that ostensibly, the revolutionary march leader had been frustrated into retreating.

Quite remarkably, this man who acted as the necessary and most effective anti-thesis for Mr Imran Khan in the vital Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, did manage to bring a certain kind of quiet to prevail over Islamabad for a few days. There was less noise created by the ministers, and even the prime minister looked to be a little less confrontational, a bit less acrimonious towards his opponents. Everyone waited with bated breath, looking for clues to what the new raiders to Islamabad may be up to and at whose behest.

But for the brief lull and silence caused in the ruling party camp by the storm whipped up by the Maulana, it was by and large a deafening chorus by the rulers about their very visible urge to punish their wayward predecessors. The prime minister’s own, “I will not give NRO to anyone,” would be a forgone winner in any contest measuring refrains for their frequency and intensity of delivery. PM Khan referred to the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) famous for rehabilitating certain fallen practitioners in the politics of Pakistan under Gen Pervez Musharraf, but every time he mentioned the three letters, the question was asked just who was his line actually addressed to. Were the target of his disapproval politicians who could benefit from introduction of a package that released them from the burden of having to face trials in cases of alleged corruption, or did the PM serve the line up for the consumption of those who were actually in a position to issue a new NRO?

As proof of PM Khan’s still unshaken resolve to build a new Pakistan over and above those seduced by corruption, the NAB was active the whole year attempting to try those charged. The Sharif family was up against the accountability machine. Young Yousuf Abbas, son of the third Sharif brother, Abbas Sharif (late), followed cousins Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz into lockups. Suleman Shahbaz was another member of the family faced with a nagging probe, as were the seniors, the founders of the dynasty, Messrs Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. The NAB faced quite a serious challenge to its claim of enjoying independence, its efficacy and fairness of its work as allegations continued to be voiced against its ‘obsession’ to go after the politicians ahead of anyone else.

After the long standoff between the opposition and the government over prosecution, if not persecution, of PTI opponents, the wheels of change through legal charge were eventually thought to have suffered a serious blow. Towards the end of the year, many opposition politicians were bailed out from NAB custody. The release of PPP stalwarts, like Asif Zardari, was secured some time after Nawaz Sharif, already convicted in a case, got out of jail over his health condition and flew to London for treatment.

In an incredible act of fate, the year 2019 signalled the entry of the PML-N politicians in the club of those who ‘naturally’ invited the tag of being perennially and incorrigible corrupt – a distinction earlier solely reserved for the PPP jiyalas. This, according to pundits, was a reality that could bring the PPP and PML-N closer and on a joint platform of the opposition parties.

However, while there were moments when the politicians of the two parties came together for a joint cause, the chasm between the old foes repeatedly showed and it did act as a major hurdle in the way of overall opposition unity. Also, there were observers who pointed out that despite the PML-N’s introduction into the race, the PPP remained the prime suspect. This impression was helped by the fact that while the PML-N was not in power anywhere in the country, the PPP, as the ruling party in Sindh, was very much a ‘nuisance’ the federal government was perpetually at loggerheads with.

As Maryam Nawaz was also granted bail the discovery of good luck on the part of the PML-N did lead to inevitable comparisons with the Sharifs of Punjab and the Bhutto-Zardari ruling clan of Sindh. One usually very cautious columnist was so moved by the disparity visible to him that he resorted to using the politically incorrect term of ‘sautela’ to protest the ‘step-brotherly’ deal handed to a visibly ill Mr Zardari, who had his own combination of the doctors’ reports and the lawyers’ arguments to get him out of the hole.

The chants against ‘victimising’ opponents in Sindh more than in any other part of Pakistan were previously at their loudest when there were rumours that the NAB was about to detain Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah in a corruption probe. The PPP went as far as vowing that even if Mr Shah was to be taken into custody he would continue to be the chief minister of Sindh. That would have been a new experience even for Pakistan which has thrived with the unusual and all kinds of freak throughout its history. These are tough attitudes and biases to get rid of. Pakistan will be up against the set idiom if it is to prove that the ‘19’ and ‘20’ are actually not as similar as everyone would have us believe.