When Captain Safdar, a PML-N MNA and son-in-law of former prime minister, uttered a vile rant against Ahmadis on the floor of the House recently, he reminded everyone of the conservative ideological position of his parent party which, of late, has laid claim to being socially progressive. On the contrary, the resounding silence of all other political parties points at the ideological uniformity that characterises them all.
As the only dissenting voice came from within the party, saying Captain Safdar spoke in his personal capacity and did not represent the view of the party, his speech has raised concerns about the ideological basis of the PML-N. Alongside, the video clip doing the rounds on social media of foreign minister Khawaja Asif in conversation with television anchor Javed Chaudhry, about getting photographed with Ahmadis, does necessitate the need to look at the ideological leanings of the party.
Someone casually remarked that when it comes to the minority question, a party like the PPP throws up leaders like Salmaan Taseer while the PML-N has this to show for. That may not seem entirely true. Because not too long ago, Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, the man to whom the party owes its name, had made revolutionary speeches as prime minister — especially in March this year on the occasion of Holi and on Diwali in 2015, both Hindu festivals.
The content was unheard of, especially from a PML-N leader: Pakistan was not created so that one religion dominates over all other; in fact Pakistan’s creation was a struggle against religious oppression; that he was the prime minister of all religious communities and everyone was equal in the eyes of law; it is not for anyone to decide who will go to heaven or hell but we should strive to make this place a heaven on earth.
So which is the real PML-N, this or that? Is it right to infer that it’s a pragmatic party that finds it convenient to change positions, ideological or otherwise, as per the needs of the time? After all, following the Captain’s malicious speech, the consistent charges against the party — of betraying the cause of Hurmat-e Rasool — have slackened considerably.
The Captain Safdar moment is significant, no matter how pragmatic the party is. Because you would not expect an MNA from say the PPP, ANP, MQM or even the PTI to stand up and make such a speech (even though it was parties and parliamentarians of all hues who had signed up on the Second Amendment in the same House in 1974).
Existing in times of ideological vacuum, it is important to gauge the social and political ideology of the PML-N from the manner it conducts itself, to glean it from the leaders’ speeches, to judge it from the bills it initiates in the parliament and the economic and development models it pursues along with so many other things.
There is a historical baggage involved. Claiming to be the descendent of the Muslim League that helped create the country, it cannot distance itself too much from the ideology of Pakistan. This ideological state was created for the Muslims of the subcontinent, and drew its strength from pan-Islamism and Muslim nationalism of pre-partition years. The present Muslim League which was given a new lease of life in the 1980s was meant to be a centre right, conservative party. Along with other ‘legitimate’ claimants of ideology of Pakistan, it naturally came to be understood as a ‘pro-establishment’ party.
The last one is a tag that defines the ideological moorings of a political party in the context of Pakistan. Whether you are anti- or pro-establishment is a huge burden to carry on your shoulders, especially when being pro- enhances the electoral prospects for any party. The PML-N under Mian Nawaz Sharif has evolved from the pro- image of the 1990s to the ‘anti-establishment’ party of 2000s.
That still is a hugely contested position, and for that the PML-N has only itself to blame. Within the Sharif family, the two brothers have assumed the role of the good and bad cop vis-à-vis the military establishment. Their record on this score is mixed at best, and more recently seen as an excuse to hide their corruption.
But Mian Nawaz Sharif deserves some credit for bringing an alternate discourse to the militarised heart of Punjab. Though, in the view of many, the party hasn’t had to pay a real price for being anti-establishment the way the PPP has.
Some analysts think there are vital competing interests involved. The civil elite of Punjab, united behind the PML-N for now, is interested in investment, trade, housing and even foreign policy which, in many ways, the military also is. But the party cannot be thwarted for the simple reason that these interests are huge, strong and substantial.
To be fair, like all parties, the PML-N wants to win elections and not be much bothered about ideology etc. The governance model that wins it votes is more important and which, as summarised elsewhere too, involves less government, less taxation, being business-friendly, mega-project oriented and ensuring more connectivity through communication networks of all kinds.
Read also: The corruption chorus
Heavily invested in capitalist economy and privatisation, the politically correct noises the PML-N makes either fit in with this governance model or are plainly a populist choice. So there may be attempts at more pro-women and pro-minority legislation but the political rallies remain hugely male-dominated. At one point Mian Nawaz Sharif as the prime minister could not resist making an uncalled remark about women at the PTI rallies while the male ministers in the party keep uttering misogynist non-sense on and off the floor of the House.
The PML-N’s neo-liberal economic model has no scope for trade, workers and peasants’ unions, nor is there a voice raised for students union. There is least respect shown for culture or history: the model city, Lahore, has lost its centuries’ old festival Basant; and the mass transit projects are being carried out at the expense of heritage monuments, trees and environment.
A socially conservative party that would do anything it takes to make money, let others make money and win the next election, without of course annoying the religious sections. That’s a sort of summary of the PML-N ideology or its lack thereof.