Politics continue to brew in Punjab-By Asha’ar Rehman

IT is significant that Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, an MNA in his own right and by his own talent, is saying this. In true political and family tradition, the young scion of the Sharif family roared in old Lahore the other day: “We will break the hands of those who try to topple the Punjab government.” Only the naïve would find the chant superfluous, the naïve who mistake the new round of flaunted friendship between the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party in Punjab for real.

The latest show of pro-democracy camaraderie starred Messrs Raja Riaz, Rana Sanaullah and Sardar Zulfiqar Khosa. The television crews were given their due when Raja Riaz told them a few days ago that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had agreed to give his party, the PPP, its share of power in the province. He went so far as to estimate that the share would be 40 per cent to the PML-N’s 60 per cent domination.

The parleys still go on, as indeed continue the warnings from either side, even if they are a little more subdued than before in the case of the PPP. The two allies of the past were at loggerheads until the other day and while now they promise to take us forward together, they cannot help but be suspicious of each other.

Suppose we agree that the two partners have sorted out their differences, then what realities was the rift made of? In a hurry it can be proven that the PPP, despite its grand power overtures, was never in a position to challenge the well-entrenched government of Mian Shahbaz Sharif, that it was only raising the stakes in the game to get the maximum out of the PML-N government in Punjab.

With some reflection it can be said that the PPP by its manouevres has made it clear to Mr Sharif that if he wanted to rule over Punjab, he can only do so in alliance with the PPP. His scheme, as a first part of which his party comrades had asked the PPP ministers to quit the Punjab cabinet, has been put on hold. The PPP, with the help of a now disintegrating and now coming together PML-Q, has managed to save the situation for now.

The serial has run something like this: the PML-N politicians ask the PPP to quit the Punjab cabinet and occupy the opposition benches, the PPP leaders resist the move and hint to the PML-Q that the two of them together could upset the PML-N applecart, the PML-Q manages to woo some of its dissident MPAs back into its pen, the PML-N could still pull it off numerically but prefers caution to risk-ridden bravado and agrees to play ball with the PPP.

A casualty of these happenings is the thesis that writes off the PML-Q and its leaders, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. The PML-Q remains a weak entity but to be fair to the Chaudhries they have been able to, even if momentarily, come out of their non-playing status. One explanation could be that the PML-N leadership thought it imprudent to not take on the powers that PPP had accumulated for itself at the centre. If this was the case, the get-rid-of-PPP noise the Sharif coterie continued to create well after the presidential election made little sense.

The most acceptable theory doing the rounds is that Shahbaz Sharif is biding his time. He will try and further boost the numbers by effecting desertions in the PML-Q. That he is no mood to welcome the Chaudhries back is implicit in the recent crackdown on the Wajahat Force, a vigilante group run in Gujrat by Chaudhry Shujaat’s brother, Chaudhry Wajahat.

It is unlikely that the PML-N will be severely challenged in this endeavour, especially if it manages to neutralise Governor Salman Taseer in its ‘desire’ for a hassle-free relationship with the PPP part of the cabinet. Except for Salman Taseer, who at least has a high enough profile, the other PPP leaders on stage do not represent too much of a threat to the strong House of Sharifs. Raja Riaz from Faisalabad stands up for the PPP as the party’s leader in the Punjab Assembly but he is yet to emerge as someone who can effectively take on even the second tier PML-N leaders such as Rana Sanaullah, a gentleman who won much fame after he was tortured by the previous regime.

Innovative and opportunist leadership has eluded the PPP in Punjab ever since Farooq Leghari failed in his attempt to form a PPP government in Lahore after the election in 1988. Shah Mahmood Qureshi was leading the party in Punjab when the latest vote was cast on Feb 18 this year. Like so many others, he opted for the centre when a PML-N-led set-up in Punjab became a certainty. And it has been a climb-down since.

The problem with the PPP’s leadership in the province is that it has at best been able to inspire sympathy. It initiates no political moves of its own and only reacts, as well as it can, to the Sharifs. Even then, as it was too dependent on Benazir in Benazir’s PPP, it relies too heavily on Zardari in Zardari’s PPP.

Source: Daily dawn, 28/9/2008


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