Pakistan’s politics has become increasingly non-accommodative and conflictual. The competing political interests, especially the PML-N and the PTI, are persistently hostile towards each other in their discourse inside parliament, in public meetings and TV political talk shows. Often time they use non-democratic idiom. On January 26, 2017, PML-N and PTI members exchanged punches on the floor of the National Assembly. Such an ugly scene was a manifestation of the growing tensions between the two major political parties. In this growing “angry politics” between the PML-N and the PTI, the PPP is pursuing an ambiguous strategy. Asif Ali Zardari is pursuing a soft approach towards the PML-N but Bilawal Bhutto often adopts harsh disposition towards Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N. However, Bilawal makes sure that he is not seen as a partner in the PTI’s political struggle against the PML-N. It is not clear what will be the ultimate disposition of the PPP as Pakistan moves closer to the general elections.
The growing conflict in Pakistan’s politics can be explained with reference to two important events: the news about a national security meeting in the Prime Minister House that blamed the Army for supporting some militant groups; and the on-going Panama Leaks case in the Supreme Court.
The PML-N federal government would like to sleep over the news item issue. It is not keen to officially disclose if it has received the delayed report of the inquiry about the publication of the news item. The report may or may not be released to public but the government appears confident that it can set aside the matter by taking some dummy action. The Army top command is very unhappy on this issue but it does not have any easy option to take a direct punitive action against those responsible for fabricating the news item and getting it published. This will, however, adversely affect civil-military relations that manifested some semblance of stability since the change of the Army Command towards the end of November 2016.
What worries the federal government most is the Panama Leaks case in the Supreme Court because the former has lost the initiative in this respect. It was able to deflect the PTI pressure on the Panama Leaks until the matter came before the Supreme Court. The federal government’s concern has increased since the Supreme Court, in another case, temporarily suspended the operations of three sugar mills of the Sharif family that were shifted surreptitiously to Southern Punjab and asked the High Court to take up the matter for final settlement.
The drum beaters of the PML-N are now pursuing four inter-related media approaches to cope with the Panama Leaks case. First, they are putting up a brave face that they would come out successfully from the Supreme Court and that, as Nawaz Sharif’s name does not figure in the Panama Leaks, no action can be taken against him.
Second, some of the PML-N activists are invoking Nawaz Sharif’s electoral mandate in the 2013 general elections to argue that a popularly elected leader cannot be removed except by the votes of people. This is an indirect message to the Supreme Court, which is a non-elected institution as well as to the PTI which got fewer votes than the PML-N in the last elections, that they should not think of removing Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N activists are also talking of a conspiracy to dislodge an elected prime minister. Another argument suggests that the people will not accept the removal of an elected leader. The PML-N did not make these arguments when the Supreme Court removed PPP Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani from his office in June 2012.
Third, a major media campaign has been launched by the federal and Punjab governments to highlight their contribution towards socio-economic development and welfare of the people. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is inaugurating some section of motorway, some electricity generation plant or a development project even if it is not fully operational. The federal government is also highlighting what it describes as the major achievements in the economy which is on way to a take-off. The cost of this media campaign runs into billions of rupees. All this is being done to demonstrate that the opposition’s political campaign and the court cases are undermining the government that is working for the welfare of the people.
Fourth, the PML-N activists have intensified their criticism of Imran Khan and his senior colleagues and have accused them of corruption, incorrect declaration of personal wealth and assets, and the use of influence by some opposition leaders to get their bank loans write-off. Several members of the federal cabinet and senior party leaders, including parliamentarians, have made their reputation for harsh and personalized criticism of Imran Khan.
The response of the PTI stalwarts and media persons is equally harsh and disparaging. The Sharif family, especially Nawaz Sharif, is the main target of their criticism. His governance and political management is also criticized. The private sector media gives enough time to both the PML-N and the PTI to engage in polemics against each other. Some such TV programmes end up as shouting matches between the activists of these two political parties.
Whatever the judgment of the Supreme Court, the conflict between the PML-N and the PTI is expected to persist which will continue to distort Pakistani politics. These leaders should have worked towards preaching tolerance and accommodation in the Pakistani society that has already been suffering from the rise of religious and cultural intolerance over the last three decades. The disposition of the political class is not setting up a precedent to discourage these trends.