This article was published in Dawn on August 15, 2021 and is available at the following link
THE so-called ‘two narratives’, or opposing point of views, within the PML-N have drawn the attention of the media and political opponents. At their core is party leader Nawaz Sharif’s stance that the establishment obstructs the policies and programmes of elected governments and, therefore, unless the establishment is taken on, criticised and pushed into restricting itself to what he considers is their constitutional role, contesting and winning elections will be meaningless. There seems to be a sizeable support for this stance of resistance or mazahmat, both within the party and among the public at large. His daughter and party’s vice president, Maryam Nawaz, is the most vocal proponent of this position and pulls large crowds at political rallies.
Shehbaz Sharif, the president of the party, has all along felt that the establishment was a reality which the party has to live with and therefore pleads for coexistence, or mafahamat. His position may not inspire large crowds but a large number of those who contest elections on party tickets feel that his stance is more attuned to the ground realities and that if the party has to stay within the electoral arena and possibly win the next election, it must try to reach accommodation with the establishment. The younger Sharif brother’s stance is not new but what is new is his detailed public articulation of this position and openly admitting past mistakes of adopting aggressive policies which, according to him, led to the party’s defeat in the 2018 general election.
It is, of course, up to the party to adopt whatever position it deems fit and it is also normal for analysts to comment on the merits and demerits of these opposing positions. But it is rather surprising that a large number of commentators, on (and off) the media, especially the electronic media, are questioning even the propriety of having more than one narrative in a party and putting party leaders in the dock for that. Rather than celebrating some early signs of intra-party democracy in the country, various analysts and commentators have extensively criticised the party for not having the ‘discipline’ to put a lid on these differences. Some even predicted the imminent collapse of the PML-N because of the public acknowledgement of these differences by the top party leaders.
We, in Pakistan, have become so accustomed to a single narrative of each political party pronounced by top party leaders which is obediently followed by the party rank and file that any departure from the practice sounds apocalyptic to us. Sadly, in most cases, such single narratives are not even adequately debated within party structures before they are adopted as party policy. The PML-N is no exception as it has also followed the same pattern from the beginning, where the top party leader sets the tone of the narrative. Just to illustrate the point, it may be useful to recall that back in January last year when the amendments in the army, navy and air force acts were to be debated in parliament providing for the army chief’s extension, the PML-N parliamentary leadership had announced unconditional support for the amendment based on party leader Nawaz Sharif’s directive before the parliamentary party could even discuss the matter. This was the approach of almost all major parties.
A party having more than one narrative sounds apocalyptic to us.
There have been instances where party leaders have voiced dissent and even parted ways with their parties but generally that has been for personal reasons such as not getting inducted in cabinet or not securing the right cabinet portfolio if the party is in power or not getting the desired party office if the party is in the opposition. We have seen a former provincial head of the PML-N joining the PPP recently because he was not invited to a public meeting. Seldom have these differences been on policy matters and even rarer are the instances when policy differences within the party have been discussed publicly and resolved democratically within the party structure.
Although the Jamaat-i-Islami is not a large popular party and its membership is restricted, it faced a policy split back in 1957 because a section of its membership opposed its head Maulana Maudoodi’s policy to activate the party in electoral politics. Eventually, a members’ convention held in Machi Goth in Punjab voted on the policy choices. Maudoodi, who had temporarily stepped aside as head, won support for his stance and 15 members who were opposed to the policy resigned.
In more recent times, the PPP faced a somewhat similar dilemma after the 2002 general election when some of its elected legislators favoured forming a government under then president Gen Musharraf even if it meant continued exile for Benazir Bhutto for some time. Pro-mafahmat leaders were overruled by Benazir and a new faction, the PPP-Patriots, emerged which joined the coalition government of the PML-Q. Eventually, Benazir chose mafahmat with Musharraf closer to the 2008 election.
Intra-party policy differences are considered normal in established democracies and some parties like the Liberal Democratic Party — the largest party in Japan with over five million members — has even institutionalised party factions formed on the basis of ideological leanings. The centre-left Labour Party of Britain keeps swinging to various degrees of leftist positions with a continuous ideological battle raging within the party. Tony Blair in the 1990s was able to move the party to a more centrist position under the new Labour project and won the election for the party after 18 long years.
It is after a long time that a mainstream popular political party in Pakistan is debating its policy choices openly. Fortunately, the debate is completely civilised and both Shehbaz Sharif and Maryam as well as their followers have been articulating their positions firmly but logically. Eventually, the party should take the debate to the party’s constitutional structures and resolve it democratically rather than on the basis of a direction from the top. Open debates on party policies are signs of democracy maturing within parties and one hopes that the trend not only continues but also expands and is seen in other parties as well.