The famous novelist Ayn Rand once said, “To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”
Perhaps these simple and yet golden words are particularly appropriate in modern times, when selling souls in the name of compromise happens very often. In fact, the people selling out their ideologies for their vested interests are considered successful. However, the question arises whether a success that is achieved on someone else’s shoulders is really worth such compromises.
In a country like Pakistan where a free press remains a dream and where governments are toppled and brought to power through the strings pulled by the military establishment, it is not easy to swim against the tide without paying a cost. From Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, every dissident political leader has paid the price for challenging the hegemony of the invisible forces. However, no one other than Sharif ever came near to a decisive battle where for the first time it seemed that the tables would be turned.
Perhaps sitting in exile in London, Sharif is regretting the day when he along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz returned to Pakistan from England on July 13, 2018, to present themselves to National Accountability Bureau for arrest. It was the first time in the history of the country that an exiled leader had voluntarily returned to go to prison knowing that the entire system was working against him to deny an electoral victory.
Sharif and his daughter fearlessly fought a battle that many in this country could never even imagine, but on the day when it was left to his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif to bring the thousands of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supporters to receive him at the airport, the entire game changed.
Shahbaz a very good administrator but a traditional status quo pro politician who could not sustain the pressure and bowed down to the establishment by compromising. He met with a few of the people from the invisible forces a few days prior to the return of Nawaz and Maryam, and the entire scenario changed.
If on that day the PML-N crowd had reached Lahore Airport, Nawaz Sharif could have not won his political battle, but it would have entirely changed the dynamics of the political discourse of Pakistan. It did not happen, as a weak and double-minded Shahbaz who did not want to go all out against the powerful establishment let the entire narrative of the PML-N sink, first by not going to airport to receive Nawaz and Maryam with a huge and charged-up crowd and then by gradually deviating from the narrative of PML-N, “Respect the ballot,” by again trying to bank on invisible forces to bring his party to power.
In a recent conversation with a renowned Urdu-language journalist, Sohail Warriach, Shahbaz Sharif admitted that he had no intention of reaching Lahore Airport that day as he had finalized the names of his cabinet with the establishment and was ready to be selected as the next prime minister after 2018 elections. However, according to Shahbaz, the narrative of Sharif and Maryam of “respect the ballot” actually buried all the chances of the PML-N coming to power again.
Perhaps for a traditional status quo political like Shahbaz, it is business as usual, as he regrets that an aggressive narrative of his own party did not allow him to come to power, and taking pride that he at least did not abandon his elder brother Nawaz. Though his confession is not a new thing, as any knowledgable journalist can tell you, Shahbaz did not go to the airport that day because not only did he want to see the PML-N in power again but also wanted to save his brother from the wrath of the establishment.
Nevertheless, Shahbaz’ confession connects many dots as to why the entire system was hijacked to deny Nawaz Sharif electoral victory and why he and Maryam both are silent and not taking an active role in the politics of the country.
In spite of the PML-N’s old stalwarts having a pro-status quo mindset, there is growing resentment among its vote bank about the role of the establishment in managing the political discourse, and the way Prime Minister Imran Khan has marginalized the party and its second-tier leadership along with Maryam Nawaz have only added to the bitterness.
Unlike other political parties, the PML-N has not split into factions, and like the Pakistan Peoples Party it is holding a firm grip on its political fort, in its case Punjab. Nawaz Sharif remains popular in Punjab and the Hazara belt of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while Maryam Nawaz remains a threat for the invisible forces, as her re-emergence on the political horizon could pose another threat for the establishment.
Many political pundits who were unable to see that Nawaz was preparing Maryam as his political successor soon after assuming power for a third time underestimate her political weight. Shahbaz Sharif might be in the good books of establishment, but to win the next general election with a resounding majority the PML-N will need Maryam to head the campaign, as no one including Shahbaz can pull in the massive number of charged-up crowds we used to see at her political rallies.
So if the PML-N is to win on its own without relying on the establishment, it will need Maryam to take charge of the proceedings, as no one understand better than her father that electoral victory through a rigged political discourse does not last long if the prime minster is only a puppet.
The current government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is an example of one that has no power of its own, and Imran Khan is considered a puppet prime minister like the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who was brought to power to deny former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his party electoral victory. In fact, Pakistan’s tale resembles Brazil’s, where the establishment, unhappy with twice-elected president Lula, indirectly engineered the ouster of his successor Dilma Rousseff, as she was impeached in the Senate and sent packing on August 31, 2016.
Lula’s economic model that brought prosperity in Brazil became famous in Latin America and as a result, he was seen as a threat by the Brazilian establishment and the Pentagon. Corruption charges were leveled against him and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The conviction also denied him his third electoral victory, as in 2018 when he was barred to contest elections by the courts, he was leading the polls and was all set to win his third term as an elected president.
So Bolsonaro is just a puppet of the Brazilian establishment and holds no real power. Remarkably, in Pakistan Imran Khan was brought to power in the same fashion, with Sharif sent packing just like Lula. In Sharif’s case, along with the local and international establishment, his own brother Shahbaz’ inability to understand the importance of the narrative of democratic supremacy cost the PML-N the battle.
However, as long as Maryam is there and she keeps following the art of introducing democracy to the cadres of her own political party, there remains a hope that she will turn the tables sooner or later.
The battles for democratic supremacy are not won by betrayal or relying on undemocratic forces but through sheer resilience and on banking on the masses rather than the undemocratic forces.
Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.