Category Archives: Politics

Nawaz Sharif’s shift to the centre

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s chequered political career may have entered a new phase. His third term is beset by the same old challenges usually presented by Pakistan’s political landscape. A resurgent military ostensibly calling the shots, enduring turbulence in the neighbourhood and decreased negotiating space for policymaking to improve the economy. Unlike his past two terms, Nawaz Sharif has not taken on the military power. Instead, adopting a sobered version of his past self, he has chosen to ‘work’ with the permanent establishment to ensure that a systemic breakdown is avoided. That moment came last year during the street protests, but he survived, in part due to the military’s resolve not to intervene directly.

Despite these protests and lack of tangible results on many fronts, the political base of the PML-N seems to be intact. The recent two phases of local government election and barring the Lahore by-election where the opposition PTI almost won, the PML-N seems to be firmly saddled in Punjab. This is one of the flashpoints as the military’s support base is also located largely in Punjab. Nawaz Sharif’s brand of politics — of asserting civilian power, trading with India, etc. — therefore comes into conflict with the ideological framework of a security state.

Earlier this month, the prime minister said that the nation’s future lies in a “democratic and liberal” Pakistan. He also emphasised the importance of a thriving private sector. Perhaps, the use of ‘liberal’ was a reference to economic liberalism. However, for the country’s chief executive to make such a statement is noteworthy. Nawaz Sharif also spoke about making Pakistan an “educated, progressive, forward looking and an enterprising nation”. He was immediately berated by religious leaders for negating the ‘ideology of Pakistan’.

Continue reading

Political Princes: Struggles of Rahul Gandhi and Bilawal Bhutto


Rahul Gandhi is the heir-apparent to the oldest political party of India and the face of a dynasty that ruled the country for over 40 years. (Photo: Reuters)

Two days ago, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, scion of the legendary Bhuttos, celebrated his 27th birthday. His party workers – also known as jiyalas (the impassioned followers) celebrated the day with much fanfare.

Is Bilawal a future player in Pakistan’s politics? Is he relevant to an overwhelming young population of Pakistan? These are questions that have been debated endlessly in Pakistan.

More than 60% of Pakistan’s population can be categorised as youth. At the outset, Bilawal has age on his side; many say he exudes charisma like his mother and can engage with Pakistani youth. Yet, there are sceptics and their numbers have grown in a rapidly urbanising Pakistan.

Bilawal’s Political Journey

Bilawal’s entry into politics was no less dramatic than Benazir Bhutto’s and at a very young age. Benazir wanted to be a diplomat or a journalist but her father’s incarceration in the 1977 coup led the 24-year-old woman to lead the resistance against the military junta headed by Gen Zia-ul-Haq.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speaks with a photograph of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, in the background. (Photo: Reuters)

Bilawal was anointed as the successor to his mother when she was assassinated in December 2007. According to Benazir’s will, since Bilawal was a student at Oxford University, his father stepped in as the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The widower, since then, has firmly held his grip over the party.

During the past seven years, young Bilawal has completed his studies at Oxford and has made his foray into the politics of Pakistan. In 2012, he made a formal debut by addressing jiyalas on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s death. He was passionate and rhetorical like the Bhuttos, stating that there were two kinds of political groupings in Pakistan: “those on the right path and those on the path of lies”. This also refers to the battle of Kerbala (where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain was killed by the then-Muslim ruler’s army). Kerbala is a mythical sense of vindication for battling against ‘evil’ (read: the entrenched establishment) and not being afraid to make sacrifices.

PPP’s Crashing Defeat and Bilawal’s Hiatus

In the 2013 elections, the PPP was routed in almost all of Pakistan except the province of Sindh. Insiders say that Bilawal was not happy with the election arrangements or the way campaigning was undertaken. He spoke at various places via videotaped messages but the Pakistani voters – not unlike their Indian counterparts – prefer the physical proximity of their leader. In short, Bilawal could not make any impact on the electioneering.

PPP’s crashing defeat came in the wake of public opinion that had swelled against the Zardari administration (2008-2013) and the plain fact that most of its leaders and cadres could not freely campaign due to threats by Islamic extremists.

Other than the Awami National Party (ANP), a successor of Bacha Khan’s movement, the PPP paid a heavy price for its position on extremism. From Benazir Bhutto to Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, its top leadership remained under threat. A cruel metaphor of this climate was the abduction of the son of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani by Islamic militants. He remains in their custody to date.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (R) walks with his father, Asif Ali Zardari, during the fifth anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s death at the Bhutto family mausoleum on December 27, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

In 2014, Bilawal started to take charge of the party. In October of that year, he addressed a large rally in Karachi where he declared, “I am Bhutto” and took a strong anti-Taliban line. Alongside, he also criticised the Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM), a popular party of Mohajirs (refugees from India) in urban Sindh. The MQM reacted and reportedly Bilawal’s father chided him for alienating allies of PPP in Sindh where it still leads the provincial government.

Bilawal also shuffled party officials and very soon got into trouble with the pragmatic politics of Zardari who is known to be a power-player rather than a populist politician. He left the country for some time and his former-President father, in a public event, said that he needed more grooming to mature into a politician.

Bilawal is back in active politics as the father has fallen foul of the military establishment and is currently based in Dubai.

The Rise of the Middle Class in Pakistan and India

In the past two decades, Pakistan has undergone, among other upheaval, unprecedented levels of urbanisation. Some estimate that more than half the country lives in ‘urban conditions’ where the orbit of politics comprises services such as education, health and security.

Pakistan’s aspirational middle classes view the old (and dynastic) framework of politics as redundant. What matters primarily is economic development, infrastructure, jobs and services.

This is not all too different from India, where the rise of a middle class ethos has led to an increased premium on ‘governance’ and eliminating corruption from the local tiers of the state.

Rahul Gandhi: The Reluctant Prince

Across the border, Rahul Gandhi is the heir-apparent in the oldest political party of India and the face of a dynasty that ruled the country for over 40 years. Rahul joined politics in 2004 under the guidance of his mother, the head of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.

In January 2013, he was made Vice President of the party and in this role he led Congress into the 2014 national elections. As a leader, he failed to inspire the voters and Congress was badly defeated. Its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a landslide victory invoking the promise of economic prosperity and better governance.


Sonia Gandhi (L) pays tribute at her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s memorial as Rahul Gandhi watches on the 21st anniversary of the former Prime Minister’s death on May 21, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Rahul’s critics call him a ‘reluctant prince’ who shies away from responsibilities. Even in a television interview, he blurted out that he was leading the party because of his birth, not due to ambition.

Reports of differences between Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have emerged in the Indian media. Their different outlook reportedly is related to the plans to revive the party.

Bilawal faces the same dilemma: He is an idealist and fired by the imagination of his mother who, by all accounts, was a relentless fighter. Both, however, have to pander to the old guard, some of which is discredited due to allegations of corruption among other things.

In Indian politics, where leaders make it to the top in their senior years, 43-year-old Rahul has a long innings ahead. But that would mean he reinvents the Congress and makes it relevant to the rapidly changing electorate and its expectations.

Rahul Has Better Chances Than Bilawal

When it comes to political mobilisation, Rahul has a better chance than Bilawal. Rahul does not face the kind of stark threat that Bilawal faces. The Indian state, with all its weaknesses, keeps a strong grip on power. In Pakistan, the state is struggling to regain the powers it had outsourced to militias.

For both widowers – Zardari and Sonia – their children are the ultimate trump card in the game of dynastic politics. But both may lose their clout if the sons take over completely.

Newer political forces in India and Pakistan have attracted a large number of followers. Both, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, play up the corruption of the old school politicians. Also, the cult of a strongman, a messiah resonates in both countries. Modi will change India’s destiny, his supporters argue. This is not too different from the conservative middle class that views a ‘clean’ and ‘God-fearing’ Imran Khan as the best choice.

The appeal of dynastic parties seems to be fading. Nawaz Sharif, the incumbent Prime Minister with a strong economic agenda, would have been Modi’s counterpart but Sharif’s politics has veered to the centre. Compared to Imran Khan, whose party rules the northwestern KP province along with an Islamist party, Sharif and his party appear to be moderate.


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif before the start of their bilateral meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

The future trajectories of Rahul and Bilawal are unclear.

A recent poll by PEW suggests that Rahul Gandhi may have earned a few plus points over the last year. But the Congress will not be able to fire up the imagination of the electorate unless it comes up with a relevant program.

Bilawal was also praised for his strong statements on extremism but to many young people, he is seen as advancing the cause of a dynasty that was given too many chances – and each time it failed to deliver.

Benazir Bhutto (L) shakes hands with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on November 25, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Benazir Bhutto (L) shakes hands with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on November 25, 2001. (Photo: Reuters)

Despite the odds, dynastic politics is not going away soon either in India or Pakistan. Both societies, organised around the ‘family’ and its mythical values, are conservative and patrilineal. A full-scale overthrow of the dynastic model requires long term transformations –demographic, economic and social – that India and Pakistan have only recently commenced.

In the short term, both scions need to get rid of some of their uncles, re-craft their party programmes and rebuild the cadres.

Rahul may have a better chance of achieving that.

Bangladesh on the Brink

Unrest sweeps Dhaka after disputed elections, but Bangladesh’s problems extend much farther from the ballot box. Also sparking the flames of turmoil are a stagnant economy, authoritarian rule, and weak governance


The recent political turbulence sweeping Bangladesh has cost more than 100 lives since January and job strikes have brought near standstill to Dhaka, the country’s capital and economic nerve center. Stretching back to independence, the country’s divorce with Pakistan has left a trail of political instability resulting from frequent military interventions, high-profile political assassinations and a dysfunctional democratic order that revolves around two political parties. Atop these bipolar camps are two women known as the ‘Begums’ — the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and the opposition leader Khaleda Zia. The former is the daughter of the country’s founder and national hero Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, and the latter the widow of the first military ruler Gen Zia ur Rehman, who was popular with the conservative sections of society.

From these parties, politicians, and their resulting governance has flowed a degree of political instability in the country. The recent round of turbulence started with the disputed elections of January 2014 that was held amidst an opposition boycott. This put a question mark on the credibility of the contest. The opposition, notably the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), had demanded a neutral interim administration that could oversee the elections. Hasina refused to budge and proceeded with a one-sided electoral exercise that clearly brought her back into power for another term.

Continue reading

A definitive history of Pakistan

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. Continue reading

Meena Kumari, the poet

After my earlier article on the life of Meena Kumari, I explored the iconic actor’s prowess in an entirely different area of personal expression – poetry

Meena KumariMeena Kumari

My heart wonders incessantly
If this is life, what is it that they call death?
Love was a dream?
Ask not about the fate of this dream?
Ask not about the punishment
I received for the crime of loyalty.
(This is Life)


Meena Kumari, the iconic actor, will perhaps be better remembered by posterity as a poet of unique sensibility. For three decades she ruled Indian cinema – now referred to as Bollywood; and even after her tragic death due to alcoholism in 1972 her film Pakeezah continued to fascinate cinegoers. In a relatively short life, Meena achieved a place on the silver screen that few can match. Unlike the current trend of actors staying in business beyond their welcome, Meena died at her peak when she was barely thirty nine years old.

A few months ago I had reviewed Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography) and wondered why her poetry had not been widely published. Within a few weeks, I was delighted to receive a copy of Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema – a collection of her poems translated by Noorul Hasan, a competent translator and a former Professor of English. The book has a thought provoking introduction by Philip Bounds and Daisy Hasan and a few other gems that have been rescued from the anonymity of film journalism.

Meena Kumari2

Meena Kumari3

Meena Kumari’s lasting friendship with the poet Gulzar is well known. In fact, Gulzar was even present in the hospital when Meena struggled for her life and finally gave up. It was Gulzar who published her poems after her death. In Pakistan, pirated copies of this orginal publication were available everywhere during my childhood. At railway junctions with small bookstalls, on the pavements where old books were sold and all other places where popular literature was bought and sold. However, this collection gradually faded into oblivion and today the English readers in India and Pakistan may not even know about the poetry of Meena Kumari, which by all standards is formidable. Hasan, the translator tells us in the preface: Continue reading

The tragic floods in Kashmir and Jingoism

Will a new power-sharing arrangement emerge from this crisis?

Since early August, Pakistan has been battling itself, once again. Two opposition groups have paralysed the federal government and the capital for weeks through street protests that eventually turned violent. Imran Khan without an independent verification believes that last year’s election was rigged and that he was unfairly deprived of power. Imran’s unlikely ally, Dr Tahirul Qadri, returned from his home in Canada to bring about a ‘revolution’. Qadri’s definition of a revolution resonates with Pakistan’s middle class tired of corruption but promises no structural change except decimating the parliamentary institutions and rubbishing the country’s constitution.

Pakistan’s beleaguered prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, dealt with calls for his resignation with some fortitude. On occasions, he lost nerve by ordering crackdowns that left hundreds injured and at least three dead. Earlier, his brother — and yes, family rule also irks the middle class — who rules the country’s largest province, mishandled a mob of Mr Qadri’s supporters and a police action in June left at least 14 dead. All this while, the elected government at the helm remained deeply suspicious of the country’s powerful military that still holds the ultimate veto power on national and foreign policies. PM Nawaz has a terrible history of getting into a confrontation with the army and in 1993 and 1999 he had to step down without completing the constitutionally mandated term of five years. In 1999, he suffered additional humiliation by being ousted through a coup led by General Musharraf, faced imprisonment and remained in exile for seven years. Continue reading