After the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, political pundits say the party could face defections and could even fall apart. Many believe that historically the Muslim League has never been a strong political party but an association of political opportunists who switched sides many times in the last seven decades. It is because of this that the Muslim League is the only political party in Pakistan with the largest number of factions.
It is correct that the Muslim League has been an association of political opportunists rather than a political party. A number of feudals and landlords, who were opposed to the very idea of Pakistan, especially in Punjab, joined the Muslim League just a few years before the creation of Pakistan. Soon after the Independence, they started hatching conspiracies against their own political party. The cracks were always there but they became more visible after the assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan.
Ayub Khan, Gen Zia and Gen Musharraf shaped the Muslim League as they wished. Ayub Khan formed the Muslim League Convention, prompting many political turncoats to demonstrate their unflinching loyalty to the dictator. However, the rise of ideological politics left very little space for these political deserters in the aftermath of Ayub’s fall. Political parties became stronger; the results of the 1970s polls also reflected the strength of the parties.
The fall of Dhaka and the decline of the PPP in subsequent years once again created an opportunity for these people. It will not be historically accurate to lay all the blame on Gen Zia for the revival of feudals and political turncoats because Z A Bhutto in his later years became aggressive towards his ex-comrades and political rivals, opening up key positions in his party for political deserters. But it was Gen Zia who eventually united these feudals on a platform, helping them claim the political space that was occupied by the left and nationalist political parties in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Zia ended up creating the Pakistan Muslim League, which later broke into Junejo, Pagara, Chatta, Malik Qasim and a number of other factions. A myriad of other groups of the Muslim League always existed independently of the main Muslim League. Nawaz Sharif practically took over the party in the late 1980s, sidelining the elements that were close to the then ex-prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo.
While the party is still largely led by political actors, Nawaz Sharif through his development agenda in the 1980s, especially development works in Lahore, had managed to garner some grassroots support. It was partly these development works and partial support of the establishment that helped him confront the Benazir Bhutto in the 1988 polls. Nawaz’s development projects in later years popularised him among the masses. This popularity helped him counter Musharraf’s crackdown.
That was the first time that the Muslim League faced a real crackdown by a military dictator. Its chief was handcuffed and put into solitary confinement. Its leaders and workers were tortured and imprisoned and the activities of the party were practically banned. Despite some defections in the party’s ranks, many comrades of Nawaz preferred imprisonment to switching sides. This is when the real emergence of what we call the PML-N or the N League was witnessed on the political landscape of the country.
Now, the question is: will the N league, which had demonstrated great resilience during the time of Musharraf, survive this time? The answer could be in the affirmative. Despite the rampant cronyism during the current term of the N League, the party unconsciously knew that it would have to deliver if it wanted to survive. It was mindful of the fact that the PPP faced a drubbing in the 2013 polls because of its failure in tiding over power outages. It was this realisation that prompted Nawaz to expedite power projects, speed up work on motorways and announce development schemes in health, education and other social sectors.
Though the performance of the N League government is better than other parties as far as development projects are concerned, it is not completely satisfactory. More than 20 million children are out of school, the majority of whom is in Punjab, over 150 million Pakistanis are suffering from hepatitis, over 80 percent Pakistanis do not have access to pure drinking water and thousands of schools across the country are without basic necessities.
Nawaz’s political opponents claim that the Sharif family and other party leaders are involved in all kinds of businesses – from real estate to poultry farms. The only recipe for survival is to prove these opponents wrong. The party should focus on the human development index if it wants to win the polls of 2018. It must treble the number of schools, hospitals, basic health units and launch water filter plants on a massive scale with an aim to reduce water-borne diseases.
Can all that be done in such a short span of time? Yes. Instead of establishing news schools, hospitals and basic health units, carry out a survey to know how many of the existing schools and health facilities are earthquake resistant. If they are strong enough, initiate extension work on such buildings. If there are 20,000 such facilities, by extension programmes they could be converted into 40,000 or even 60,000. This will greatly help people throw their weight behind the troubled party.
The N League must remember that leaders in Turkey, Nicaragua and Venezuela were also ousted on one or the other pretext but it was their human development projects that helped them bounce back. The recipe to survival is to focus on human development.
The writer is a Karachi-based freelance journalist.