Loss of authority By Ghazi Salahuddin


Whether or not the combined opposition is able to make an impressive show in its protest movement, a new cycle of events has certainly been launched by Nawaz Sharif’s address via video link to the multiparty conference held last Sunday in Islamabad. Its political significance is validated by frantic attempts made by PTI stalwarts to play it down.

The chorus had begun before the speech was made, with the contention that a convicted person who was graded as an ‘absconder’ must not be allowed to appear on television. After Nawaz Sharif’s address was broadcast live, generating a lot of excitement across the nation, four chosen federal ministers sat down to challenge its contents.

And they felt obliged to argue that views expressed by the only politician who has thrice been the prime minister of Pakistan and who is the guiding light of a major political party were ‘anti-Pakistan’.

In any case, Nawaz Sharif’s carefully drafted speech has underlined some fundamental realities of the country’s power structure and its system of governance. In addition, it has, in a way, exposed the vulnerability of the present arrangement. This is also reflected in the strategy adopted to camouflage the impact of Nawaz Sharif’s appearance on the political stage after more than two years.

For the time being, yes, the focus has somewhat shifted after revelations that the opposition leaders as a group and a prominent leader of Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League in his personal capacity had held ‘secret’ meetings with the COAS and the ISI DG. The message, obviously, is that the opposition, particularly the PML-N, is hypocritical in its rejection of institutional interventions in politics.

Maj-Gen Babar Iftikhar, head of the ISPR, disclosed in a TV talk show that former Sindh governor and a prominent leader of the PML-N, Mohammad Zubair, had twice met the COAS – once in the last week of August and then on September 7, in the presence of the intelligence chief. He added that Mohammad Zubair had talked about Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz.

This had to raise a lot of dust, considering the current stance of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam. On his part, Mohammad Zubair did not contradict the meetings and had his own version of what had transpired. Meanwhile, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad has merrily assumed the role of spokesman and has threatened to reveal opposition leaders’ contacts with the army leadership, claiming to possess telephonic data to implicate some leaders. Maulana Fazlur Rahman has asked a clarification of Sheikh Rasheed’s position.

That institutional interference has had a veto power in Pakistan’s civilian rule can hardly be disputed. But the rules of the game changed with Imran Khan’s rise to power in the national elections of 2018. As it appeared to shrewd observers then, Nawaz Sharif was to be kept out and Imran Khan brought in.

We have repeatedly been told that the civilian and military arms of government are on ‘the same page’. In our chequered history, this is an exceptional arrangement. Since elected governments have frequently remained under pressure and were even removed from power, Imran Khan would be expected to set a better example of good governance.

This has not happened by a huge margin and, in the process, other powerful players also confront the prospect of gradually losing power and authority. If Nawaz Sharif has to be kept in the political wilderness, the options are very limited. And it is in this scenario that he has reiterated his narrative. While Mohammad Zubair’s meetings with the COAS and DG ISI were revealed on Wednesday, they took place well before Nawaz Sharif made his speech on Sunday, September 20. What transpired in those meetings must have been taken into account.

For that matter, the significance of Nawaz Sharif’s speech has yet to be properly reviewed. As the headlines put it, he took the ‘parallel government’ head-on. He talked about “a state above the state”. And the gist of it was that “if change is not brought, it will bring irreversible loss to this country”.

Irrespective of what happens to Nawaz Sharif’s politics and how formidable the Pakistan Democratic Alliance will be in the coming weeks and months, is change imminent? When you look closely at the state of the Pakistani society, the answer is likely to be ‘yes’. Almost all the indicators that are relevant in the context of social stability and equilibrium are critical. Things are falling apart.

At one level, there is this epidemic of rape and sexual abuse of children, with alarming instances of murder. The motorway gang-rape had shaken the nation. But in more than two weeks, it has receded in the background. The pandemic may have contributed its share but the overall crisis is rooted in the rulers’ inability to govern. A social scientist may describe this situation as a loss of authority or power deflation.

It is a measure of the present rulers’ refusal to accept the reality that exists on the ground that they have suppressed the freedom of the media, and use brutal methods to silence their critics. They do not seem to be worried too much about the misery of the ordinary people. Instead, they are obsessed, for instance, about Nawaz Sharif and other political opponents. It is becoming some kind of a mental health problem.

But mental health is also a larger concern, as a vast number of people seem unable to cope with anxiety and fear. Is this how a nation suffers a nervous breakdown?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com