The appointment of Professor Hasan Askari Rizvi on Friday as the interim chief minister of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province finally completed the process of laying down authority across the country ahead of elections next July 25. In less than two months from now a newly elected government will take charge of Pakistan’s federation and the four provinces for another five years, marking a historic milestone that will finally see well respected individuals such as Rizvi return to their previous lives.
And yet the immediate reaction by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in rejecting Rizvi as a partisan figure not only defied logic but also badly exposed the former ruling party’s already tarnished credentials. The party’s top leaders chose to criticise Rizvi on the grounds that he had clearly shown leanings towards the party’s political opponents.
For anyone who has closely followed Rizvi’s popular analysis on Pakistan’s TV channels, it would be clear that he is not only impartial but his continuous focus has remained on institutions rather than personalities. Additionally, he is the author of one of the most authoritative books on Pakistan’s army and politics, in addition to authoring numerous academic articles and newspaper columns. That makes him unique in a country where taking potshots by political rivals at each other has become a daily trend.
Elections in the world’s more stable democracies are typically a smooth affair but not so in Pakistan. The uncertainty surrounding elections in part gets triggered time and again due to Pakistan’s peculiar history. The mere fact that Pakistan has been ruled by the military for almost half of its existence as an independent state highlights the country’s historic baggage. And yet in recent months, events leading to last week’s end of the tenure of Pakistan’s elected government, said much about the gaps across the ruling structure.
Almost a year has passed since the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was forced out of power in a Supreme Court verdict that was principally triggered by revelation of excessive wealth belonging to Sharif and his family. Yet Sharif has chosen to defy his critics and cry foul.
The former prime minister believes that he was targeted in a conspiracy that was instrumental in overseeing his departure. But the choice by the PML-N’s leadership to target the interim chief minister of the Punjab outlines a fundamental defect in Pakistan’s evolution.
Sharif, the self-proclaimed democrat, saw his political rise in the early 80s, thanks to well known patronage under the former military ruler General Zia ul Haq. And that patronage allegedly continued till later with the Pakistan army’s possible support to Sharif in national elections of 1990. Sharif’s background has abundant stuff to demonstrate his own undemocratic behaviour in previous years.
Meanwhile, the PML-N’s decision to take on the well respected professor Rizvi appears to be a consequence of its own history. Known for long as the proverbial “King’s party” in the 1990s, the PML-N and notably Sharif remained tied to its reputation as the political group that received patronage from key institutions of the Pakistani state. It is a known fact which was repeated time and again by the late Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister.
Today, Sharif’s main problem seems to be his utter failure to appreciate the changing dynamics of Pakistani politics and the total absence of support for the PML-N from any institution of the Pakistani state. In sharp contrast to the military’s backing of Sharif previously, the Pakistani army today remains politically at arm’s length. Ultimately, the former prime minister and his coterie of politicians must reconcile themselves with the harsh realities of fighting a political fight as it ought to be fought.
By targeting a well-respected interim chief minister, PML-N may well be laying the ground for its ultimate political defeat. It’s already clear that the party may be confronted with difficult questions on the campaign trail.
Across Pakistan’s rural belt in particular, the significant rise in poverty and the failure of the agriculture sector have already laid the ground for popular discontent.
Elsewhere across the country, there is much evidence of a complete disconnect between the PML-N led ruling structure and the hard-core realities of Pakistan.
In a country where the poorest of the poor must brave several hours of electricity cuts every day and have no access to affordable health care, education or water supply, popular discontent is bound to be widespread. Against that background, the PML-N and Sharif must reconcile themselves to their own unceremonious past that has seen a widening of the divide between rich and poor.
And in the meantime, targeting individuals like Professor Rizvi with his well respected credentials may backfire for Sharif and other PML-N leaders who see this as an opportunity to vent their anger.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.