The recently concluded by-elections in Rawalpindi’s NA-55 constituency offered a stunning spectacle. The way these elections were covered by the media and the interest that they generated was a clear indication of the people’s enthusiasm for the democratic process.

No matter how cynical the country’s urban middle-classes are about the concept of democracy, these elections yet again proved that democracy is alive and well in Pakistan.

This seat was won by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s Javed Hashmi in the February 18, 2008, general elections. It went vacant when Hashmi had to let go of it to retain the one he had won in his hometown of Multan. A PMLN candidate also won the first by-election here after the 2008 elections. But he was soon disqualified on the basis of the Election Commission realizing that his graduation degree was fake.

Another by-election for the constituency was announced, especially on the insistence of Awami Muslim League (AML) candidate, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed (also called ‘Sheeda Tulli’ after a popular and colourful TV character of the late 1980s).

Rasheed who started his career as a gung-ho anti-PPP activist of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami’s student-wing, the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) in the late 1970s, went on to carve out an individual (and popular) niche for himself in the politics of Rawalpindi (his hometown), managing to win every election held in his constituency between 1985 and 2002.

Just like a number of former IJT activists who in their adult careers failed to relate to Jamaat-i-Islami’s more intransigent world view, Rasheed too decided to join Nawaz Sharif’s moderate-conservative PML.

Whose League is it anyway?

There have been many versions of the PML. The original Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that worked for the creation of Pakistan and then became the country’s first ruling party collapsed under the weight of infighting and intrigues.

In 1962, the country’s first military dictator, Field Martial Ayub Khan, reconstructed the party to work as his civilian mouthpiece. However, this version of the PML too collapsed and broke into various self-serving factions when a powerful anti-Ayub movement led by left-wing student groups and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) erupted in 1967-68.

All PML factions were trounced in the 1970 general elections by the PPP (in West Pakistan) and the Awami League (in the former East Pakistan). Only a handful of tiny PML factions survived the PPP’s populist onslaught, until 1985, when the country’s fourth military regime of General Ziaul Haq encouraged these factions to unite under a single banner.

Studded with pro-Zia politicians, the new PML survived till 1992, but broke into various factions once again, with the biggest faction represented by former Punjab Chief Minister and protégée of the Zia regime, Mian Nawaz Sharif. PMLN soon became the single biggest representation of post-Zia democratic conservatism in Pakistan.

Throughout the 1990s, the PMLN continued to gather a motley crew of remnants of the Zia regime, along with former IJT members, anti-PPP politicians, and politicised industrialists.By the mid-1990s, a good number of former progressives (Raja Anwar) and some liberals (Themina Khar and Ayaz Amir) also became part of the gathering.

When in 1996 the second Benazir Bhutto government was dismissed by President Farooq Lehgari on charges of incompetence, the PMLN was voted back for its second stay as the ruling party. Blessed with a huge parliamentary majority, the second PMLN regime soon became a victim of the many contradictions it was now contending with.

Still seen as the military establishment’s civilian expression, PMLN failed to contain the physical and ideological dichotomies that emerged when it tried to balance its populist democratic credentials and its overtures of peace and reconciliation towards India with an overt display of support for various Islamist characters as well as a distaste for the time’s judiciary.

The result was a democratically elected party in power which eventually slipped back into its 1980s role of a reactionary dictator’s civilian expression, riddled with delusions of grandeur, corruption and incompetence.

Then Kargil happened.

Claiming he knew very little about the Kargil operation (designed by the Pakistan Army), Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was too busy trying to get the parliament to elect him as an ‘Ameerul Momineen’ (Commander of the Faithful).

The Kargil debacle and the PMLN regime’s increasing exhibition of muscle flexing and bizarre notions of parliamentarianism saw the military establishment topple the government and impose the country’s fifth martial law in October 1999.

The irony of this action was that the PMLN had been overthrown by the same institution which the party had served and sided with (especially against the PPP) throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2002 elections, the PMLN experienced its worst electoral defeat, with its electoral thunder now stolen by the PML-Quaid – another PML faction constructed by a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, to work as his civilian expression. PMLQ contained a number of former PMLN members, including Sheikh Rasheed.

As PMLQ became the Musharraf dictatorship’s populist phrase for his double-edged ‘enlightened-moderation’ (a doctrine that tried to accommodate liberal thought and the Pakistani establishment’s lover affair with radical Islam within the same fold), the PMLN began to reinvent itself by approaching its main nemesis and rival, the PPP. Return of the N-ative

In 2007, the PPP and PMLN returned offering a single democratic platform against the Musharraf dictatorship and PMLQ. Benazir Bhutto by now had become the most popular and articulate expression of liberal democracy in Pakistan, whereas Nawaz Sharif seemed to have let his party shed the heavy reactionary-establishmentarian baggage it had been carrying across the 1990s.

Benazir was brutally assassinated by extremists just before the 2008 elections. The tragedy saw the PPP being voted back into power, whereas the PMLN dealt a heavy blow to the PMLQ in the country’s most populous province, the Punjab.

But the trust and cooperation witnessed between Benazir and Nawaz started to erode when Asif Ali Zardari took over the chairmanship of the PPP and then was elected as the country’s new President, replacing Musharraf.

Though many PPP members have blamed the new president’s ‘inner circle’ and advisers for misleading Zaradri into taking certain unpopular steps that have seen the PMLN spinning out of the orbit of cooperation initiated by Benazir, it is also true that Nawaz has (unwittingly) become hostage to a ring of veteran PMLN ‘hawks’ whose sentiments against the PPP failed to be affected by the Benazir-Nawaz reconciliation process.

Fanning the fires in this respect is also the rise of the electronic news media which has increasingly found itself struggling to demonstrate even a semblance of objectivity, instead banking its ‘analysis’ and commentaries on the populist and emotional perceptions about politics, religion, and accountability.

During the Musharraf dictatorship, the country’s leading private news channel clearly became a hybrid of confused ideological notions when it openly gave vent to the reactionary and violent gestures exhibited by the Lal Masjid terrorists as well as to the more democratic manoeuvres of the anti-Musharraf lawyers movement.

Though roundly criticised by the liberal circles for helping trigger anger among extremist organisations incensed by the army’s action against the Lal Masjid culprits, the channel knew it had hit upon the same lucrative and populist model first pioneered by such right-wing TV networks as North America’s FOX News.

Spite sells

Apart from continuing to give prominent exposure to some of the crankiest conspiracy theorists and hate-mongering televangelists, this channel recently let loose a constant barrage of spite against Zardari - all in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘accountability.’

There are very few Pakistanis who would be willing to defend some of Zaradri’s recent decisions, but the channel in question seemed to have crossed some vital limits while commenting on these decisions.

What causes more concern is the emerging perception that this channel has started to sound more like PMLN’s official channel. Many observers believe that the channel’s two favourites, Nawaz Sharif and the Chief Justice, are actually setting the structure and tone of their rhetoric according to the dictates and perceptions being peddled by the channel.

During the recently concluded by-election in Rawalpindi, the channel gloated that its opinion poll predicted Sheikh Rasheed’s defeat. I overheard a senior producer of the channel at the Karachi Press Club boasting that it was now his channel that was determining the electoral fate of the politicians.

Though there is nothing hidden about this channel’s both pragmatic and maybe even ideological fascination with PMLN, I wanted to tell the same gentleman that his channel has been equally smitten by characters like Imran Khan and Munawar Hussain (of the Jamaat-i-islami). Meaning, if this channel now considers itself to be a king-making machine, then why, in spite of it giving Khan and Hussain so much coverage and vent, did both the men’s parties fare so badly in the Pindi by-elections?

Both Khan and the Jamat, which have been given a tremendous run on this channel to constantly air their anti-Zaradri, anti-America, and (some would even suggest), ‘pro-Taliban’ tirades, together received a mere four per cent of the votes in the by-elections.

So, is the gloating by the channel a case of sheer delusion? Was this also why the same channel suddenly went on a rampage against Sheikh Rasheed the night before the important by-elections, maybe believing the PMLN wouldn’t be able to win without the channel’s help?

This was by far the most blatant and distasteful exhibition of partial and biased journalism, where the host of a popular talk show and his guests made sure to make Rasheed seem like the most unprincipled and dubious politician on the face of the Earth.

The guests also included established journalists, two of whom made not even a pretentious attempt to sound impartial. The worst was when the host, still unsatisfied with the circus he had enacted, invited a controversial mullah of the Lal Masjid, Maulana Aziz, to deliver a sort of fatwa against Mr. Tulli’s politics. (Aziz, if you remember, is the same brave soul who faced the army’s action against the Lal Masjid clerics and extremists by actually trying to escape from the mosque in a black burqa!) But all was not lost on the show. At the fag end, famous newspaper columnist, Humayun Gohar, seemed to have had enough of all the ‘objective analysis’ ringing around him and was man enough to castigate the host and the channel of committing ‘target killing against the personality of Sheikh Rasheed.’

As to how much this show affected Rasheed’s performance in the election cannot be gauged, but there is no doubt about what the real idea behind the whole façade of ‘objectivity’ enacted by the show was about.

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Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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