The political show goes on

A question on the lips of most Pakistanis these days is whether the Sharif brothers and their political party – the PML N – will manage to push back their rival – the PPP – and its leader Asif Ali Zardari.

After the Supreme Court decision disqualifying the Sharif brothers from electoral politics and holding public office the PML N seems to have had no other option but to muster street support in the form of the lawyers’ movement and seek out parties and groups of the religious right.

People across the country were getting ready for political show time on the streets until March 3 happened. On this day matters appeared to take another turn as terrorists struck in Lahore. Now the problem is that as much as the Sharif brothers might want to up the political ante the reality is (to put it in the words of an Indian film song) that ‘Pappu nach naheen sakta’.

Surely Nawaz Sharif will be cautious in overexposing himself and his followers to the threat of a terrorist attack. The last leader to ignore security calls was Benazir Bhutto who succumbed to a terrorist attack. The identity of her killers remains unknown.

Security is bound to be enhanced now and there will be greater vigilance to allow for major processions on the streets. In any case people will be terrified at least for a few days and would be averse to risking their lives by congregating and taking out processions be they lawyers or others.

The security situation does not bode well for them especially at a time when the PPP is trying hard to buy the loyalties of the people through restoring the nazims and resorting to other measures to undermine the strength of the PML N.

The political battle was meant to be fought on the streets. It would be the Sharifs’ ability to mobilise the people in this regard that would impress external powers and opposing political forces in the country. As far as mass protests go the PPP has an edge in terms of its jiyalas who are rabid party supporters willing to give up their lives for the PPP and its leadership.

There is a general understanding that the PML N never had this edge. But this is not to underestimate the fact that the Sharif brothers have the support of the trader merchant class in Punjab and other places. Historically they fund the protest even though they are not actively a part of it. So one could have had a situation as in 1977 when the conservative trader merchant class funded the PNA movement.

Although it would be extremely conspiratorial to hint that the government may have been involved in the terrorist attacks the fact is that the peculiar turn of events must have made the PPP leadership very happy as it provided an opportunity to contain the upcoming long march and the street protests by the Sharifs. The party’s calculations possibly included buying off parliamentarians in Punjab which would enable it to make a government in the largest province and then use the power to wipe out the PML N in the next elections. The emphasis is on patronage politics which helps in purchasing loyalties. Voting patterns are affected by a number of factors including popular ideas on who will make it to power.

Equally they have much to do with people’s perceptions of who has been wronged.

There is great worth attached to physical and political martyrdom in South Asia and the Third World in general. Not to mention the fact that patronage politics is generally an inefficient system. At the end of the ruling party’s term there are always a large number of disgruntled people who then decide to switch over to the other side in the hope of getting better benefits. Considering the short life of civilian regimes patronage politics rarely support the ruling party.

But convenient times do not necessarily mean that the battle is or will be over soon. The PPP indeed made a difficult choice by derailing the Punjab government. It might be able to form the provincial government but it will have to face the uncomfortable situation of dealing with a strong opposition.

This means that it will be difficult to undertake policymaking and the party will eventually have to fall back on patronage politics. It should also not be forgotten that the bulk of the Sharifs’ party constituents were happy (or not so unhappy) with the PML N.

In any case extreme conflict between the two parties in Punjab will make both policymaking and service delivery harder if not impossible in the largest province which means that the people will ultimately be unhappy with the situation. The prospect of such a degree of unhappiness in the largest province is worrying particularly when we consider the fact that the military still predominantly belongs to Punjab.

What we are looking at is protracted political warfare in which the battle lines may ultimately be drawn on the basis of ideology (it is still a blessing that confrontation has not taken on an ethnic colour). Even if nothing happens as the long march approaches the Sharifs will not give up the street fight or the one that has started inside parliament. It is a fact that a number of forces that have an impact on Pakistan’s politics such as the US do not support the PML N.

Given Washington’s understanding that the Sharifs are ideologically conservative as compared to the PPP and its leadership the US does not seem inclined towards the PML N. However this would add to the ideological angle of the battle. Many would interpret this confrontation as a conflict between pro Pakistan elements and those that are at the beck and call of the US. Ultimately this will further make politics in this country extremely wonky.

More importantly political confrontation is a reminder not only of the past but also of the myopia of the politicians and political parties. The fact is that Pakistan’s political system in general is driven by predatory instincts in which players do not value loyalty partnership ideology or the betterment of the people. Instead they are driven by concern for short term gains and their desire for personal power.

Under the circumstances one can easily predict that the boots will eventually march back from the barracks into the corridors of power — if not today or tomorrow then certainly the day after. And then they will be the ones dancing rather than Pappu and his mates or rivals.

Note: This article originally published here.