This article was published in Dawn on Aug 27, 2022 and is available at the following link
WE have a history of political feuds and vendetta that run through generations. It may be difficult to pinpoint the origins of the politics of vendetta but the misuse of laws and state institutions to settle political scores started as early as 1949 when Proda — the Public Representative Officials Disqualification Act — was enacted by prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s government under which politicians could be disqualified for up to 10 years.
After the martial law in 1958, Gen Ayub Khan further extended the tradition of political victimisation. His government promulgated Ebdo — the Elective Bodies Disqualification Order — in 1959 and disqualified almost 75 senior political leaders for eight years.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was foreign minister in Ayub Khan’s government and had turned against Ayub in his twilight years in power, adopted an aggressive position and mounted an effective campaign to dislodge him. Although a wide range of political parties were struggling against Ayub Khan’s rule, Bhutto stood out because of his aggressive style and strong language. His aggression and tough talk paid him dividends as his style became popular and he emerged as the most popular leader in West Pakistan.
After the break-up of 1971, Bhutto became first the president and then prime minister of Pakistan and his aggressive style of dealing with opponents got even more intense over time. He sacked two provincial governments where parties other than his own had formed governments. Many political opponents faced criminal cases, imprisonment and physical harm.
The cycle of revenge is continuing at a time when Pakistan faces two unprecedented crises.
All these happenings may not have been the Bhutto government’s doing but it was widely blamed for them. Opposition parties, deeply aggrieved by the government, banded themselves into the PNA, or the Pakistan National Alliance, which launched a countrywide movement after the general election in 1977 was blamed by them as having been heavily rigged by the Bhutto government. Bhutto tried to reach a negotiated settlement but at least a part of the opposition had developed so much mistrust towards him that they preferred a military takeover to dealing with him. As law and order deteriorated, the military declared martial law, deposed the government and took Bhutto, his close aides and opposition leaders into custody.
While Bhutto and his party retained or even enhanced their popularity, the opposition joined hands with the military government to avenge all real or perceived excesses committed against them by the PPP leader. A murder case was registered against him and after expedited court proceedings, he was convicted and hanged. This was perhaps the first high-profile case of political vendetta. Bhutto was succeeded by his daughter Benazir and Zia’s ideological successor was Nawaz Sharif. The enmity was passed on to the next generation.
After Benazir was elected prime minister in 1988, Nawaz Sharif and PML made repeated efforts to dislodge her government through a vote of no-confidence and by courting the intelligence agencies.
From 1988 to 1999, Benazir and Nawaz alternately became prime minister twice, and both, when in government, tried to crush the other and when in opposition did their best to topple the government using whatever means available. It was only after Nawaz Sharif was toppled in the 1999 military coup that he and Benazir realised the folly of vendetta and signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006, pledging not to use undemocratic means against each other and to respect each other’s mandate.
This historic development brought the saga of political vendetta to a temporary halt. As a result, the PPP completed its five-year term from 2008 to 2013 and the PML-N government was not disturbed by PPP from 2013 to 2018. In fact, when PTI chairman Imran Khan mounted a strong assault on PML-N’s federal government in 2014 and staged a sit-in in front of parliament, the PPP supported the PML-N in resisting the assault.
Apparently, both the PPP and PML-N had learnt their lessons during their bitter confrontation spread over almost three decades when both parties — and the country — had suffered immensely.
Sadly, a new chapter of political vendetta opened up when Imran Khan decided to topple the PML-N government in 2014 as it felt aggrieved with the result of the general election in 2013. This new cycle of political score-settling is scaling new peaks at present.
The PTI-led federal government was unnecessarily removed through a vote of no-confidence and a PML-N-led coalition government took charge. The PTI doesn’t recognise the federal government and demands immediate (premature) elections. Several corruption and other serious cases are registered by the federal government against Imran Khan and his party colleagues and they, including Imran Khan, face arrest. An aide of Imran Khan is already in prison facing sedition charges and Imran Khan has alleged that this aide has been tortured and subjected to sexual abuse in custody.
In the true spirit of vendetta, the Punjab government, too, has instituted criminal cases against several PML-N leaders including the federal interior minister. Political temperatures are rising and Imran Khan is mobilising public pressure using all the aggression at his command against the federal government. The public seems to like Khan’s aggressive style — a throwback to Bhutto’s strategy in the late 1960s and the 1970s.
This politics of vendetta is gaining momentum at a time when Pakistan is facing the worst twin crises of its history in the form of an unprecedented economic crunch and the devastating onslaught of rains and flood.
Although both PTI and its opponents can be blamed for their shares of follies, the PTI stands out on this count as it refuses to talk to the opposition to resolve issues and move towards a new election.
The PPP and PML-N had learnt their lessons and agreed on the rules of coexistence in 2006 after both parties heavily suffered through the loss of the top PPP leadership, martial law, exile, the coup against the PML-N government etc.
The PTI doesn’t have to learn the hard way; it can scrutinise the past sufferings of the PPP and PML-N and refrain from making the same mistakes.