In October 2008 at an event marking General Musharraf’s 1999 coup, Shahbaz Sharif was addressing a gathering of his supporters. PML-N had just capped a phenomenally successful year which saw them go from the wilderness of exile to the corridors of power. They had ousted their arch-nemesis Musharraf and there was an air of redemption to the rally.
As Shahbaz Sharif wrapped up his speech he broke into verse and began eloquently reciting Habib Jalib’s Dastoor (popularly known as Main Nahee Manta) from memory; the crowd went berserk. With every verse, the crowd numbering only a few hundred worked itself into a frenzy. It was as if the poem had been written for this day. Watching on my computer screen thousands of miles away, I was moved.
On Friday, we witnessed an encore performance. In front of a much larger crowd gathered for the PML-N rally in Lahore, Sharif again broke into verse. In an attempt to breathe life into a dull, diatribe-laced speech he fell back on to a trick that hard worked for him previously. It was a more melodious rendition of the poem but it failed to get the desired response. As he recited “Wo jo saye main har maslihat kay palay”, the irony was inescapable. It was as if he was rebelling against himself. It was a desperate attempt to sell himself as a revolutionary, but no one was buying it. Three years of alignment with the status quo had taken its toll. Shahbaz Sharif had lost his mojo, sacrificed at the altar of expediency.
Shahbaz Sharif and PML-N’s transformation from champions of change to symbols of the status quo did not happen overnight. It began perhaps as far back as late 2007 when PML-N broke ranks with the APDM and decided to contest the general elections held in 2008. Amidst the election fever and the pining for change in the Pakistani public, PML-N got a pass from the public for betraying the APDM. The electorate collectively shrugged as APDM sans PML-N sat out the election. PML-N ended up bagging the votes of all parties that were part of APDM.
Once in power in Punjab, it continued a half-hearted struggle for the restoration of the judiciary. Only when the PML-N government in Punjab was removed in February 2009 did the Sharif brothers throw caution to the wind and begin an all-out, no-holds-barred struggle to restore the judiciary. Had the PCO judiciary not taken that drastic step, the judiciary may never have been restored.
When the Supreme Court declared the NRO unconstitutional, PML-N’s response befuddled many. The credibility of the 2008 elections had been called into question and fresh elections should have been the next logical step. But when PML-N refused to call for fresh elections, it lost the last shreds of its credibility.
If there were any doubts that PML-N had become a pillar of the status quo, the 18th Amendment removed them. By handing ‘party heads’ the authority to declare dissenters as ‘defectors’ and initiate proceedings to unseat a sitting parliamentarian, the 18th Amendment effectively recognised the major political parties as personal fiefdoms. By bringing judicial appointments under a parliamentary commission, the independence of judiciary was curtailed. These two clauses of the 18th Amendment are the clearest evidence of the confluence of interests of the two major political parties. Had the media not been as strong as it has become, it surely would have been gagged in the 18th Amendment as well.
PML-N had vociferously campaigned to reverse Musharraf’s anti-terror policies. Yet they remained silent as the government dragged its feet on implementing the unanimous parliamentary resolution advocating dialogue to resolve terrorism. It watched from the sidelines as Pakistan descended into blood-curdling chaos. If negligence and inaction were declared crimes, PML-N would be the biggest offender. At a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history, PML-N was in a position to arrest the slide into anarchy. Yet they chose not to.
With elections approaching fast, Shahbaz Sharif has made a desperate attempt to arrest his party's slide. Unfortunately for him, his and his party’s transformation from champions of change to symbols of the status quo has happened in plain sight. It has cost him his Mojo and come election time, seems like it will cost him his government too.
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