Widening the scope of national narrative

September 27, 2020

The national narrative is destined to be pluralised through inclusionary mechanism

The Pakistani national narrative, which is believed to be spun and controlled by the ‘establishment’ had found unequivocal support from the Punjabi urban bourgeoise until Gen Pervez Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. The ethnic (Muhajir) identity of Gen Musharraf contributed significantly to Punjab’s resentment against the Musharraf regime, which manifested in the lawyers’ movement in 2007-08.

The outcome of the 2008 elections, with the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) being routed, was yet another elucidation of how distraught the Punjabi electorate had been with Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal. Even though the PML (Q) too had Punjabi leadership, the perception that its patron was Musharraf proved enough reason for its unpopularity in the province.

The Punjab was virtually swept by the PML (Nawaz) in 2008. My reading is that it was the anger of the Punjabi public against the army which was being commanded by a non-Punjabi general. In the four decades of the Pakistani establishment’s history since the debacle of Bangladesh in 1971, it has been rare for a non-Punjabi general to be elevated to the military’s highest rank.

Gen Mirza Aslam Baig was another exception. He became the army chief by sheer stroke of luck when the top brass, including Zia-ul Haq died in an air crash. However, Gen Musharraf’s ascent to the post of army chief was quite an atypical occurrence, considering the entrenched pattern with respect to the Pakistan Army with someone from Punjabi-Pakhtun factions rising to the top slot.

The unceremonious overthrow of a Punjabi prime minister and his incarceration in Attock did not sit well with the Punjabi urban classes whom Nawaz Sharif represented. Thus, the persistence of the Punjabis in shoring up support for the most powerful institution of the country was eroded considerably.

Tremors kept seething at the subterranean level before the cumulative anger erupted. Gen Musharraf then saw history repeating itself. It was a déjà vu of what had happened to Ayub Khan in 1968-69. That turn of events should be contextualised so that the saga of the Punjab being the support base for the ‘establishment’ makes sense. In order to do that we will pick up the thread from 1971.

After the secession of East Pakistan, the Punjab provided the support base to the Pakistani establishment. Its methods of engagements with politics had avowed endorsement from the urban class of central Punjab. It is pertinent to mention here that the British had chalked out the martial race theory in the 1880s, keeping in view the suitability of the Punjabi clans of the northern districts for recruitment to the British Indian Army.

Despite their focus being northern Punjab, a substantial number of the officer corps were recruited from the districts of central Punjab. Therefore, the army personnel constituted an incredibly significant portion of the Punjabi populace, inhabiting mainly the rural (colony) districts. Those having served in the army got tracts of land in the colony districts of the Punjab.

Significantly, the nexus between the establishment and central Punjabi urbanites emerged in a crystalised form with the ascendancy of Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in the late 1980s as a political protégé of General Zia-ul Haq, himself a Punjabi from Jalandhar. Before proceeding any further, we should be cognizant that the purported rationale underpinning the widely held perception about the establishment reflecting the aspirations of the Punjabis was couched in the numerical majority that the Punjabis enjoyed both within the army and the bureaucracy, the two powerful arms of the establishment.

That made things very conducive for an urban Punjabi like Nawaz Sharif to cozy up to the establishment, particularly when Benazir Bhutto’s arrival onto the political scene was perceived as a challenge to the establishment’s sway. That was exactly when the slogan of Jag Punjabi Jag, teri pag nun lag giya dag (O Punjabi wake up, your proud turban bears a stain from neglect) was widely circulated (in 1988) at the behest of Lt-Gen Hamid Gul, who was the chief architect of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad. It implied that the honour of Punjabis was at stake in the face of the challenge presented by Benazir, a Sindhi woman who represented an anti-thesis to the Zia era.

Nawaz Sharif and his acolytes very skillfully wove a web of connections with Punjabi rural kinships and thereby became a formidable political force in the province. However, his political appeal did not transcend Punjab through the years of his party’s rule. I reckon in all earnestness that the optimal potential that Nawaz Sharif represents is no more than that of a provincial administrative head.

But that was a mere digression, I will write in detail on Nawaz Sharif’s limited capacity as a leader some other time. The point I am trying to underscore is that for the last 20 years, a sizable number of Punjabis living in urban areas have steadily relinquished their support for the ‘establishment’ and more specifically the army’s role in politics. That trend has cast its reflection on PML-N’s stance.

Even during Nawaz Sharif’s third tenure as prime minister, the embittered relationship between the establishment and his government could not be eased and tension between the two not only remained tangible but kept increasing.

With the ascendancy of Imran Khan from 2011 onwards a new trend was discernible. He has instrumentalised the shift of the national narrative away from central Punjab and relocated it in north-western districts of Mianwali, Chakwal, Jhelum and to an extent in the southern Punjab. His party has done incredibly well in Multan, Bahawalpur, and Dera Ghazi Khan. It is not to say that central Punjab has dissociated itself from the national narrative in toto.

While keeping his political stakes intact in central districts like Faisalabad, Okara and Sahiwal, Khan has widened the spectrum of the national narrative by extending its range to peripheral areas like Waziristan, and southern Baluchistan. Besides, he has brought Karachi back into the fold of the Pakistani national narrative.

On a slightly different note, mainstreaming of transgender and the initiatives like poverty alleviation are steps in the right direction which will result in striking the social equilibrium. These initiatives will force the establishment to be plural and more inclusive. Besides, it will have to be far more responsive to the aspirations of the people coming from ethnicities and lingual groups outside of central Punjab.

Thus, the national narrative is destined to be pluralised through inclusionary mechanisms. I think instead of the political parties locking horns with the military establishment, the political process should keep on including people from different hues and stripes into the fold of Pakistani nationalism. Khan is doing exactly that.

Widening the scope of national narrative