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Talibangate and Sharifs’ old tricks – by Cyril Almeida

Shahbaz Sharif was saying, I get it, God, country and family is my motto, too. I feel your pain. Support me and I’ll take care of you. –Photo by AP

Shahbaz Sharif’s boo-boo had everyone up in arms. Even his party folks struggled to explain it away with a modicum of believability.

But nobody wanted to talk about what he was really doing. Shahbaz is first and foremost a politician. Like all politicians, he’s always thinking about votes. And like most politicians, he can sometimes go over the top in the pursuit of said votes.

The Punjab CM’s words to the Taliban were ugly and crass, absolutely, but the Taliban weren’t really his intended audience. Shahbaz was channelling what his party’s average voter is thinking. Spare us, the Punjabi trader, the bedrock of the PML-N’s support in the province, has been pleading.

Whatever your fight, whatever your dispute, don’t bomb our markets and bazaars. It’s costing us money, Taliban. We have families to feed, stocks to replenish, things to sell, but your bombs and bullets are keeping the customers away. Please stop.

There’s no acceptable way for a politician to say this. Whichever way it’s framed it sounds like or is appeasement because it’s an economic argument to stop fighting what is an ideological war.

Shahbaz, though, went ahead and said what his core voter is thinking because that’s what comes to him and his brother naturally: a lowest-common-denominator race to the bottom for votes.

The party’s opponents pounced on the bit they could gain some mileage out of: look, it’s the same ol’ PML-N, up to no-good provincial politics as is its wont. Forget about voting for them if you happen to belong to a land other than the one with five rivers.

But none of the PML-N’s opponents wanted to criticise the subtext of Shahbaz’s exhortation to the Taliban: after all, the Punjabi trader is a powerful political force and you don’t want to alienate that votebank unnecessarily

Attention will soon switch, if it hasn’t already, from Talibangate and the furore over ‘spare Punjab’. This is a land of many crises and the next media frenzy is only a matter of time.

Shahbaz’s comments, however, underline what many have been quietly arguing: that the Sharifs are unreconstructed provincialists who will exacerbate centrifugal forces in the federation in their quest for power.

This whole business of ‘principled politics’ since the Sharifs’ return to Pakistan has been a product of happenstance. They, like all politicians, are in the business of politics to win.

Winning for the Sharifs in the last days of the Musharraf era was a happy coincidence of smart politics and principles. Oppose the deeply unpopular dictator, support the wildly popular chief justice and then just ride the wave of populist support back into the corridors of power. It’s what every politician dreams of: being hailed as heroes while playing politics.

But once in power, as the Sharifs are in Punjab, a familiar problem rears its head: the fact that a broken and corrupt system of governance cannot be fixed just because you had promised the voter it would be fixed. The hype of the campaign trail gives way to the reality check of office.

Listen to Chaudhry Nisar and the other PML-N attack dogs’ rants against the PPP government in Islamabad and you can’t help but think, hang on a minute, isn’t all this stuff applicable to the Sharifs’ government in Punjab?

A bloated, useless cabinet? Check. An autocratic leader? Check. Poor fiscal management? Check. Running roughshod over the bureaucracy? Check. Inability to improve the provision of basic services? Check. Rampant crime? Check. Inability to control prices? Check. The list goes on.

When things aren’t as great as you had promised the voters they would be, you need to reach out to the party base and remind them that you’re on their side in other ways. Enter the TTP and its violent campaign against the Pakistani state.

Bombs aren’t good for business. And yet everyone in the political mainstream has been telling the businessmen who are haemorrhaging money that this is a necessary war, that the Taliban need to be defeated, that this counter-insurgency must be won.

What Shahbaz did was see an opportunity and seize it: wave the flag of disgruntled traders and businessmen and merchants. It’s all well and good to be told that you must tough out the present for the sake of improved security in the future, but if you’ve got a business you’re probably wondering what good security will do when you’re broke and struggling to feed your family after your business has been shuttered.

Hang on, Imran Khan and the Jamaat-i-Islami have cried themselves hoarse opposing the war against the Taliban but they’ve got nowhere with the electorate, you say.

True. But the Punjabi trader isn’t an ideologue. His credo is ‘Allah, country and family’. He wants a moderately Islamic Pakistan, a strong Pakistan and an economically flourishing Pakistan.

Imran Khan and the JI offer a vision of a pure Islamic Pakistan: Islam first and everything else a distant second. This isn’t very appealing to the Punjabi trader, and it’s not hard to see why.

The trader is an economically oriented guy. He believes in the Creator but also puts his faith in His willingness to forgive. Doing business in Pakistan is dirty business: there are bribes to be paid, arms to be twisted, taxes to be avoided and laws to be skirted. The trader justifies this because he’s a pragmatist. Remember, he’s got a family to take care of. He’ll seek forgiveness by never skipping Friday prayers and making sure he goes on Haj at least once in his life.

That’s the guy Shahbaz was really reaching out to this week. Shahbaz was saying, I get it, God, country and family is my motto, too. I feel your pain. Support me and I’ll take care of you.

Not convinced? Pick up a copy of Sartaj Aziz’s excellent memoirs and flip to the page where he discusses the background to the legendary ‘I-will-not-take-dictation’ speech of Nawaz Sharif in 1993. Some of the figures involved in the Sharif-GIK war thought a truce was possible and were trying to nudge Sharif in that direction.

But he went ahead and gave the speech, knowing full well his government would be sacked (it was the next day). Why? Because Sharif knew the speech would go down well in Punjab and create a wave of support for him and his party in the province.

With Talibangate it seems the Sharifs are up to their old tricks again.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Source: Dawn

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