By Shahab Jafry
April 25, 2018
As Nawaz Sharif fades from political mainstream, the extremism he helped nurture has radicalised society.
News media's obsession with Nawaz Sharif's fall hurts the ruling party especially so close to the election, but it also helps it by keeping the spotlight away from its shameful and repeated capitulation against the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Twice now the TLP has dictated terms to the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) - at the centre as well as Punjab - making the government go back on its word the first time and ignore anti-terrorism court's (ATC) orders the second time. The chronology is important.
The TLP was formed in 2015 after the court's decision to hang Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. It first made headlines in September 2017 by contesting the by-election for Nawaz Sharif's vacated national assembly seat in Lahore. Surprisingly, it finished third behind the PML-N and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), overtaking the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) by a handsome margin. It repeated this trend in two more by-elections, which the right-wing press readily amplified as proof that it was now the third strongest party in Punjab.
Wrapped in love for Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, the TLP stands farther to the right than other religious-political parties in this Islamic Republic. It made headlines again in November after the government, for reasons still unknown, fiddled with the customary oath taken by members of national and provincial assemblies and changed the clause regarding the finality of Prophethood.
Taking this as a US forced attempt to dilute the blasphemy law, naturally, the TLP blocked the Faizabad highway that links Pindi and Islamabad - cities that house the GHQ and parliament - asking for an immediate rollback and the law minister's scalp. Then came the government's first shameful retreat.
It rolled back, immediately, citing a 'clerical error', but refused the bit about the minister's resignation. Then it unceremoniously showed him the door when the protests grew stronger. Then it ordered a 9,500 strong police force to round up the protestors, approximately 2,500 strong, by force. But the police, bloated on years of corruption, was beaten into an embarrassing retreat by the time the army was called in.
But by then TLP protesters had completely blocked about 70 cities, choking important arteries throughout the country. And that forced the army to broker a deal, overseen by an ISI Maj Gen, that (quite publically) put a thousand rupees in each protestor's pocket to call off the strike and go home.
Yet, not much later, when the anti-terrorism court nullified the deal and ordered immediate arrest of TLP president Khadim Rizvi and other senior leaders, came the government's second and more embarrassing capitulation.
"Court's orders will be carried out in letter and spirit," the Punjab government's spokesman would repeat no matter how many times journalists asked when Rizvi would be arrested.
"There's no way they'll order the arrest," senior police officers would tell journalists in private. "The TLP is now the third largest party, after all."
Rizvi, meanwhile, brought his followers to the PML-N's heartland in Lahore, and threatened shutting down the country again if the deal, which the ATC had rubbished, was not restored and implemented in full. And then, when his deadline lapsed, his followers promptly blocked major roads in all big cities in the country, forcing the government to sidestep the court and accept the TLP's demands in a matter of hours. Now, the Punjab government's prosecutor will request the court for a fresh filing of charges; the first step, no doubt, in reversing the arrest warrants.
The judiciary, despite the vigilante chief justice - out to set suo motto records and ensure justice, clean water and public jobs - has had nothing to say about the government's inability to carry out its orders. Strangely, this was also the time when the government, as well as the establishment, was expected to form a long awaited national narrative that was supposed to be so central to the National Action Plan (NAP). The government's complete paralysis on this matter has also raised the odd point of this, perhaps, being the new narrative from those who matter, especially with TLP making electoral inroads.
The PML-N of today appears very different from the days when Gen Zia's political machinery catapulted Nawaz Sharif to the top of the League. And industrial barons (like his father) and the religious lobby bankrolled his campaigns and provided street power in return for privilege in the assembly. The romance with the military establishment, despite joining hands to bring down governments, ended when Musharraf kicked him out of office and locked him in exile for ten years.
Now the religious lobby, the ticket to political legitimacy, and votes, in the growing far right, has also abandoned the PML-N. Once, after Zia had propped them up as the backbone of the celebrated Mujahideen of the Soviet war, Nawaz also exalted them as ideologues of virtue. In those days Nawaz also appreciated the Taliban for 'the peace they have brought to Afghanistan'.
Liberals, and the few leftists that survived the Zia years, warned Nawaz against patronising the religious far right just as it was leaning towards extremism in the pre-9/11 years. Otherwise, they warned, this extremism would spread deep into society and, along with street and militant power, give it political legitimacy as well. As Nawaz now fades from the political mainstream, the extremism he helped nurture for so long has radicalised society, marginalised minorities, changed the political discourse and, ironically, cut off his own party's legs.
Shahab Jafry is a journalist based in Pakistan