The greatest disservice that one can do to PML-N’s apparent secular-liberal transformation is to label it as such. For the moment the S-word is wrapped around any thought, even your moderately progressive-minded individual pulls the shutters down. Even the most ungodly idea will be bought by hordes, if one can get Islam’s stamp on it.
And so in a country where the prime minister has to clarify statements envisioning a ‘liberal’ state, in a strictly economic sense, explicitly propagating secularism is political masochism – if indeed such is Nawaz Sharif’s ambition. For, where the L-word is anathema to the political right, the S-word is downright sacrilege.
As things stand, the PML-N government is warding off stiff resistance from religious quarters, including its coalition partner JUI-F, over Punjab Assembly’s Women Protection Act, which the Islamist parties have dubbed ‘un-Islamic’ without explaining how exactly it is that. This was complemented by Nawaz’ vow to eradicate the so-called honour killings, and his state-level praise for Pakistani-Canadian director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy whose documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness won her a second Oscar.
A couple of weeks ago the government decided to punish – albeit within the glaring limitations of current judicial procedure – the man who has a mosque named after him in the capital, and hundreds of thousands willing to resort to violence at the drop of a hat. Mumtaz Qadri’s judicial execution could pave the way for reformation in Pakistan’s blasphemy law – one of the most daunting challenges facing secularists around the world. In December last year, the Punjab Police was asked to remove anti-Ahmadiyya posters from Hafeez Centre, Lahore – the PML-N’s veritable hub.
Furthermore, the latest update is that the government is set to finalise holidays for the religious festivals of the minorities, including Holi, Easter, etc. This comes after Nawaz Sharif became the first Pakistani Prime Minister to attend a Diwali festival in November last year. The speech he gave while addressing the Karachi Hindu community is one of the profoundest messages of solidarity professed domestically by a Pakistani head of government in recent memory. “Every Pakistani from any religion belongs to me and I belong to them. I’m everyone’s prime minister,” Nawaz said. In a speech where rabb was used alongside Allah, Nawaz said he would punish a Muslim if he commits an atrocity against a Hindu.
Nawaz has come a long way from being the kingpin of the Mehrangate and the offspring of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad. His Hegelian dialectic has found a fourth stage for PML-N mid-way through his third term as the premier. This is because Nawaz’s hitherto thesis was to be the anti-thesis of PPP, an affluent gang of feudal lords championing the cause of the left.
Not having an ideology as an ostensible raison d’etre of his party has allowed Nawaz to be conspicuously more flexible. He’s no stranger to evolution having transmuted from being the Army’s stooge in the 80s to taking on the establishment – albeit in a losing cause – by the late 90s.
Being an industrialist, the only unflinching ideology Nawaz adheres to is economic neoliberalism, one of the many bones of contention that have brought his government to confrontation with the Army vis-à-vis India. Given that Nawaz’s business interests lie in South Asian laissez-faire, considering the mammoth neighbouring markets in India and China, his political stars have realigned to make liberal politics inalienable from his economic ambitions.
The liberals, women, religious minorities, anti-establishment purists, they all formed the electoral jurisdiction of PPP that PML-N has gradually usurped. While taking over PPP’s traditional vote bank, as the party tries to rebuild especially outside rural Sindh, the PML-N has also cashed in on the multi-pronged faux-pas of its greatest political rival as things stand.
Seemingly en route to PML-N from PPP, the liberal vote bank had made a loud pit-stop at PTI. While the hardcore Insafiyans, the unflinching ideologues still enchanted with the rat-catching vows of the pied-piper, continue to form a sizeable allegiance for Imran Khan, it is the progressives that are now disenchanted with the PTI’s hobnobbing with the establishment and their erstwhile strategic assets.
The PML-N sizing up the progressive, liberal vote bank even at the cost of alienating the Islamists, says as much about the party’s ambitions as it does about its biggest rival’s.
PTI has been shackled by a provincial alliance with JI, and a nascent legacy headlined by Taliban apologia and anti-democratic antics. The two parties’ contrasting viewpoints on the Women Protection Bill, and its implementation in their respective provinces, might just sound the death knell for PTI’s chances of recapturing the liberal vote-bank. And it would need a gargantuan turnaround in fortunes for PTI to outdo its 2013 performance two years from now, with the leadership’s broken record churning out rehashed statements on corruption and rigging.
Meanwhile, the fact that PML-N and PPP might be aligning to bail each other out of NAB’s (and FIA’s) accountability grill through a legal amendment that is being currently mulled, is another example of those two having gauged their position on the current political spectrum and in turn making future plans accordingly.
Even so, there’s something about the PML-N’s moderate progressiveness that betrays an element of integrity, more than political point-scoring. There appears to be foresightedness in earmarking the issues needed to be overcome to rebuild a progressive Pakistan: gender discrimination, religious intolerance and hostile relations with immediate neighbours. The latter of course still very much under the Army’s grip.
Of the traditional secular-liberal parties of Pakistan - PPP, MQM and ANP - two were engaged in a blasphemy mudslinging brawl only 18 months ago involving Khursheed Shah and the third’s senior leader Ghulam Ahmed Bilour announced head money worth $200,000 for Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for drawing ‘blasphemous’ caricatures only last year - after the French satirical magazine lost eight staff members in a jihadist attack. PPP, for long the poster-party for secular-liberalism, has a history of betraying its manifesto, most notably resulting in the Pakistani Constitution adapting takfirism in 1974.
While Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has all the makings of an uncompromising secularist, he still has years to go before he can come out of his father’s shadows, and undo his party’s precipitous slide. This gives the Nawaz-league an opportunity to forego its recent past of mild Taliban apologism and sectarian political alliances and seize the long vacant cockpit of a liberal Pakistan.
The $46.2 billion invested by China for the economic corridor might be the driving force behind cleansing of (inbound) jihadism from Pakistan, without which the biggest Chinese foreign investment in history won’t bear fruit for either country, but Nawaz is visibly rebranding himself as a statesman of the modern world, who – if most things go according to the rather optimistic script – might be credited by historians as the man who steered Pakistan out of the seemingly impregnable quagmire of religious extremism. We’re not talking about military historians, of course.