Pakistan Muslim League: A Reality Check

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Talat Farooq[1]


(This article is a reality check on the performance of Pakistan Muslim League in general and Pakistan Muslim League (N) in particular with regard to parliamentary democracy, strengthening of political institutions and promotion of provincial and regional harmony. Jinnah’s Muslim League played a significant role in the creation of Pakistan without compromising on its fundamental principles. Post partition, however, it was unable to uphold the value system of its antecedents. The paper aims to highlight the consequences of their traditional relationship with the establishment and the conservative and religious segments of the society. The main argument pertains to PML (N)’s apparent break with its pro establishment past since its ouster from power in 1999 and its joining hands with the lawyers’ movement in 2007 in an ostensible bid to strengthen democratic institutions. Is the change real or is it  yet another political gimmick to settle the score? Author).

At the first turning of the second stair

I turned and saw below

The same shape twisted on the banister

Under the vapor in the fetid air

Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears

The deceitful face of hope and despair

T.S. Eliot

The Charter of Democracy (COD), to which the Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML (N) along with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is a signatory, notes that the Pakistani nation has experienced “the most devastating and traumatic experiences under military dictatorships that played havoc with the nation’s destiny and created conditions disallowing the progress of our people and the flowering of democracy.”[1] The COD pledges to draw upon lessons from history and bear in mind that the military dictatorship and the nation cannot co-exist.”[2] The hapless nation, desperate to find honest leadership, chose to believe that these obvious verities were being affirmed with sincerity and, from October 2007 onwards, Nawaz Sharif emerged as the most popular politician in Pakistan. Public opinion swung in his favor, despite his controversial past, as his approval ratings skyrocketed.[3] The 2008 PML (N) election manifesto reiterated the party’s strong commitment to parliamentary democracy in keeping with the vision of the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.[4] Nawaz Sharif returned from eight years in exile and his strong stance vis–a-vis the restoration of the pre-3 November judiciary, unconstitutionally fired by Pervez Musharaf, won him many supporters. The lawyers’ long march in June 2008 for the restoration of the deposed judges was given unambiguous support, in word and deed, by Nawaz Sharif on behalf of the PML (N). However, after the resignation of Pervez Musharaf in August 2008, the PML (N) seems to have mellowed its stance on the judges’ issue.  Though the PML (N) withdrew from the coalition government at the centre, it has not renounced its partnership with the PPP in the all important province of the Punjab where it continues to be predominant in the provincial coalition led by chief minister Shahbaz Sharif. This raises doubt whether the PML (N)’s resignation from the federal cabinet was prompted by genuine indignation or motivated by political expediency. This softening of reaction is not surprising. The party seems to be returning to the age-old traditional pragmatism that it has followed since the inception of Pakistan.  What is surprising is the PML (N)’s deviation from this trend after the military coup of 1999.

The Muslim League’s declining popularity graph after the death of Jinnah can be attributed to the party’s increasing loss of contact with the masses. It aligned itself with the power circles instead. The reason was simple; the leadership of the PML was dominated by feudal lords and the independent merchants who linked the preservation of their narrow personal and class interests with that of the state being run with the help of the British trained civil service. Over the years, as the state became synonymous with the military-bureaucracy nexus and later with the military-mullah alliance, factions of PML threw their weight behind such power structures instead of working toward the betterment of the masses by building strong democratic institutions. This pattern continued unabated under Musharraf, who was fervently supported by the PML (Quaid-i-Azam) faction till his ouster in August 2008, despite his massive unpopularity with the people of Pakistan.

The civil society joined the lawyers’ struggle and the Long March of June 2008 saw thousands of people on the street. Despite big crowds and suffocating heat no untoward incident took place as the caravan moved from city to city. The march culminated in a huge gathering in Islamabad. It was a clear indication that the civil society of Pakistan is ripe for peaceful agitation to win the democratic rights long denied to them. The PML(N), at the forefront of this march, failed to cash in on the opportunity that could have resulted in a national movement for empowerment of the common man. Once again it failed to establish and maintain contact with the masses even though it gave the impression of understanding the pulse of the nation.

The PML (N) showed signs of independence from the establishment during its stint in power in the 1990s when its leadership initiated dialogue with India and later when the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Jehangir Karamat resigned in the wake of certain controversial public statements. The show of independence culminated, rather unwisely, in the sacking of the new COAS, General Pervez Musharraf, thereby  providing justification for yet another military takeover. The Musharraf-led coup in October1999 resulted in incarceration and then deportation of the PML (N) leadership to Saudi Arabia; the Sharif family remained in exile till 2007.

During the years of exile, the party gradually gained in political stature as it initiated a long and sustained opposition to the dictatorial regime of Musharraf in contravention of its traditional pro-establishment reputation. The apparent change of heart paid off and the PML (N) made a comeback in the 2008 general elections by riding the tide of popular sentiment pertaining to the independence of judiciary and condemnation of Musharraf and his extra-constitutional measures.

The question is whether this change of heart is fundamental or a mere aberration? Giving in to Zardari’s somersaults on the judiciary issue and meekly relinquishing the much flaunted goal of the restoration of the deposed judges after Musharraf’s resignation in August 2008, has cast doubts on the party’s credibility. It seems to give credence to the suspicion that the PML (N) stood by the lawyers only to get even with Pervez Musharraf. Keeping in mind the vengeful politics of the Nawaz government of the 1990s, the impression does not seem farfetched. Some are of the view that perhaps all deliberations on the judges’ issue were nothing more than a cover up for a power struggle for adjustment of seats in the by-elections between the PPP and the PML (N).Whatever the case, a feeling of disillusionment with the PML (N) has crept in and letters criticizing the negative role of the PML (N) vis-a-vis the lawyers’ movement have begun to appear in newspapers.[5] Why has the nation lost faith so quickly? The answer can be found in the historical failings of the PML since 1947.The skeletons in the cupboard of the party credited with the creation of Pakistan, continue to haunt the psyche of the Pakistani nation ,if not always consciously then  surely at the subconscious level. In order to understand the growing disillusionment of the people with the PML (N) one needs to go back in history.

Ideals and Reality: PML in the Post Independence Scenario

The British colonial state structure was all powerful and kept the political institutions deliberately weak. Pakistan not only inherited the colonial structure but also preserved and strengthened it. The pro-establishment policies of the contemporary PML factions are in keeping with the traditionally indecisive and regressive role played by the PML after the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. The history of the Pakistan Muslim League cannot be covered here in its entirety. This article would restrict itself to certain significant components of the PML’s performance with regard to the following aspects of post independence political development.

  • State and Religion
  • Provincial and Regional Harmony
  • Parliamentary Democracy

State and Religion

The All India Muslim League (AIML) emerged as a political force in the subcontinent on the basis of representing and safeguarding the interests of the Muslims in India. Initially it aimed for a free India with separate Muslim electorates to ensure stronger provincial and central representation. Later it set forth the goal of a separate Muslim homeland. Defining Muslim identity through religion became important in order to garner the support of the Muslim majority states since its strongest support emerged from the Muslim minority and not majority areas. The Muslim nationalists coalesced into the Indian Muslim League and drew strength from the two-nation concept central to which was the demand for Pakistan. Prior to independence, Jinnah’s resort to Islam was aimed at giving a united face to the movement to gather the divided Muslim constituents. During the 1945-46 election campaign, Jinnah and most of his close associates appealed to the Muslim sentiment through Islamic rhetoric even though they themselves were secularists.[6] Although the AIML was able to win over prominent locals in its struggle for a separate Muslim homeland, it was unable to evolve consensus on the role of religion in matters of the state and the issue remained unresolved till independence.[7] By appealing to the religious sentiments of the Indian Muslims, substantial political mileage was gained by the AIML.

After independence, the modernists as well as the Sufi elements in Pakistan opposed the formation of a theocratic state while the religious parties, who had been against the very creation of Pakistan, espoused Islamization as their mission. Due to the political exigencies of the time, Jinnah’s aims vis-à-vis the role of religion in the state remained somewhat ambiguous. However, there could be no doubt, keeping his personality in mind, that his ideas would be based on rational and liberal outlook.

General Zia-ul-Haq’s orthodox approach to the issue in 1979 led to the resurrection of Jinnah as an Islamic leader. This was outrageous because while Jinnah was a Muslim he had no Islamic leanings. He could perhaps be termed as “the most Westernized political leader in Indian Muslim history [who] was culturally and socially far more at ease with the high society of cosmopolitan Bombay and metropolitan London than with those who he led and represented.”[8]

Jinnah’s approach to the role of religion in the future Pakistani state was more complex than one would like to believe.  Pakistani liberal opinion refers to Jinnah’s oft-quoted speeches that substantiate his vision of a secular, though Muslim majority, state. Jinnah was unequivocal in his secular leanings when he declared: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State. You will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”[9]

In none of his speeches pertaining to the status of the non-Muslims does Jinnah envision Pakistan as a theocratic state that would implement the Islamic law of jizya or that would accord the status of zimmi to the non-Muslims.[10] Jinnah was no Islamic theologian or historian and therefore his references to the establishment of an Islamic state cannot be understood outside the political and historical context.

It is, however, undeniable that Jinnah was vague and ambiguous on this issue. On the one hand he espoused the idea of a secular state while on the other, in view of disquiet in the ranks of the AIML vis-à-vis Jinnah’s lack of a clear-cut stance on the establishment of an Islamic state, he promised the Pir of Manki Sharif the enforcement of shariah in Pakistan in exchange for his support in the election of 1946.[11] Again, while addressing the Tribal Areas, Jinnah said: “The government of Pakistan has no desire whatsoever to interfere in any way with the traditional independence of the Tribal Areas. On the contrary, we feel as a Muslim State [emphasis added], we can always rely on [the] active support and sympathy of the tribes.” [12]

It may be surmised that Jinnah, a man of honor and integrity, opted for ambiguity on the issue to enlist and maintain support of a coalition of feudal lords, tribesmen, pirs and Muslim elites. It would not have been politically expedient to campaign openly for a secular state especially while competing with Nehru’s secular Congress party. He must have hoped that “a liberal, secular Pakistan would one day follow once the messy business of partition was over with, and it was unnecessary to raise the issue of secularism now.”[13]
According to Ayesha Jalal, Jinnah was first and foremost a thorough bred constitutionalist who had no doubt that the Pakistanis would choose “a moderate, democratic and forward-looking state.”[14]

The heightened spirit of nationalism prior to partition subsided after independence because of grave problems related to refugees, finances and military assets. The challenge was to revitalize the Pakistan Muslim League by formulating a dynamic program under the supervision of dedicated and visionary leadership. Jinnah’s personality served as a rallying point during his lifetime and, later, Liaquat Ali Khan was able to command respect because of his close association with Jinnah. Nonetheless, despite being privy to the secular and liberal leanings of Jinnah and his vision for a democratic Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan soon after Jinnah’s death gave in to the demands of the religious elements.

The passage of the Objectives Resolution in March 1949 and the support given to it by Liaquat Ali Khan provided the mullahs a much needed foothold in the future politics of Pakistan. It also laid the foundation for the future PML-mullah alliances. Later, the manipulation of the concept of Islamic ideology and its linkage with national security issues enabled the military-bureaucracy combine to remain at the helm of affairs at the cost of parliamentary democracy. The resolution clearly enunciated that sovereignty belonged to God and that the authority delegated by Him to the people of Pakistan is a sacred and divine trust. No such mention had been made in the Lahore Resolution of 1940 which merely asked for “autonomy and sovereignty for Muslim majority areas where religious, cultural, economic and other interests would be safeguarded.”[15]The Pakistan National Congress, the main opposition party in the Constituent Assembly, was against the Objectives Resolution on the ground that mixing of religion and politics would “reduce the minority communities to the status of serfs.”[16]

The Muslim League leadership, with the exception of Mian iftikhar-ud-din, generally supported the resolution.[17] Liaquat Ali Khan failed to complete the task of framing the constitution and it was taken up by Khawaja Nazimuddin, the new Prime Minister and the then president of the PML. He presented the Basic Principles Committee Report on 22 December 1952.The most controversial recommendation pertained to the creation of Boards of Ulemas, at the central and the provincial levels, with the authority to review all proposed legislations and to amend or expunge those they deemed repugnant to Islam. The recommendation virtually gave the Maulvis “the power to veto the work of the legislature”[18] and received scathing criticism from the opposition for giving “sweeping powers to a handful of persons who could monopolize the right to interpret the Quran for the whole nation.”[19] The religious flavor of the report was the result of a few meetings between the Ulemas and members of the Nazimuddin cabinet .Nazimuddin thus allied with the orthodox ulemas for short term political goals.[20]

The said report was followed by a series of controversies, deepening the constitutional chaos. Soon the anti-Qadiani movement erupted and as it gained momentum the PML’s provincial government under Mian Mumtaz Daultana virtually capitulated to the demands of the agitators to excommunicate the Qadianis, thereby encouraging the Islamist elements.[21]He had earlier established a department of Islamic Studies that employed six ulemas and four of them actively participated in the anti-Ahmadi movement. 3,700 PML workers joined the agitation with the blessings of the Punjab Chief Minister.[22] The connivance of the Muslim League with the religious elements for political gains was prompted by the hope of “refurbishing their legitimacy at a time when grave and intractable problems faced the nation at home and abroad.”[23] The constitutional turmoil was eclipsed by the anti-Qadiani movement and its violent fallout. It also facilitated the first military intervention into the political affairs of Pakistan as martial law was imposed in Lahore in March 1953. If the PML leadership had any vision for a progressive Pakistan and the strength of character to strive for it, they would not have opted for short term political personal gains at the cost of national prosperity.

The PML’s support to the anti-Qadiani movement violated the spirit of the modernist reformism of the Aligarh movement aimed at reconciling the workings of a modern democratic nation state with that of the Islamic concept of sovereignty of God. The demand for the creation of Pakistan was “very much an Aligarh enterprise,”[24]opposed by both the orthodox school of Deoband and the Jamaat-i-Islami. The Deobani-Bralevi relations have always been uneasy with the Deobandi fundamentalists condemning the saint and shrine practices encouraged by the pirs of the Barelvi sect. The orthodox ulemas, in united India, lacked the support of the rural voters. The “mass mobilization of the Muslims would not have been possible without the influence of the pirs in 1946-47”[25] who, in view of their popularity amongst the Muslims of India, played a significant role in popularizing the movement for Pakistan.[26]

The pirs retained their influence after independence and threw their weight behind Ayub Khan in the presidential elections of 1965, by forming the Jamiat-i-Mashaikh.[27]The Jamaat-i-islami attained its greatest influence during the Zia era although their attempts to turn Pakistan into an ideological state could not succeed in view of discord within the ranks of the ulemas. The factions of the Muslim League supported both the dictators in clear violation of the original ideas of Jinnah pertaining to the role of religion in the Pakistani state. During the Ayub era, the Convention Muslim league was created to support a liberal dictator whose relations with the orthodox mullah were strained even as he turned to the Barelvi School for support. Similarly, the Musharraf regime relied on the PML (Q) to support its policies in view of opposition from the religious parties after 9/11.

To oppose Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1977 elections, the Muslim League joined the religious parties to form the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). The PNA’s tone was religious despite secular parties in their midst; it was funded by those affected by Bhutto’s nationalization policies.[28] Bhutto eventually had to step down as Zia took over and Pakistan “reverted to military rule as a result of the religious sentiment unleashed during the PNA campaign against Bhutto, and this time military rule was beholden to Islamists as never before.”[29]The marginal influence of the religious elements since 1947 received an enormous boost from Zia who elevated them to a vanguard role. While the educated elite despised the policies of Zia-ul-Haq, the industrial class of the Punjab provided support. This rising industrial elite of the 1980s provided an urban support base for the PML under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.[30]

The civil-military bureaucracy engineered Nawaz Sharif’s political elevation in 1990 in view of his power base in the Punjab and because of his Islamic and pro-establishment credentials.[31]Nawaz Sharif’s government continued Zia’s policies of overt Islamization of the society by making it mandatory for female artists and news readers of the state owned Pakistan Television to cover their heads and by continuing to support the mullahs’ demand for the Shariah Bill, held in abeyance since 1988. However, in the face of hard ground realities Nawaz Sharif favored the UN proposal of a broad based government in Afghanistan and annoyed the mullahs by refusing to support their man, Gulbadin Hekmatyar. Furthermore, while he paid lip service to the pro-shariah elements in the Assembly, he did not adopt a pro-Saddam stance during the Gulf War of the 90s, thereby annoying his religious allies.

Although Nawaz Sharif took these steps against the wishes of his religious partners he did not come out with a clear anti-mullah stance and has continued the policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound; a political tactic that has done nothing to impart a sense of direction to the nation and has, in fact, further confounded the religious issue. While the PML (N) has come out with an open anti-military stance after 1999, it has so far failed to unequivocally condemn the Taliban and their sympathizers.

Contrary to the liberal inclinations of its founding fathers, the PML has, throughout history, lacked progressive credentials, forging close relations with forces that perpetuate the status quo and unabashedly associating with the mullah-military and military-bureaucracy alliances. Its leadership and core members have traditionally comprised of landed gentry and wealthy industrialists. The PML’s conservative leanings and the political exigencies have, since independence, obviated its clear stance regarding the role of the mullah in clear violation of Jinnah’s ideal of an Islamic state minus theocracy. This ambiguity has not helped the image of the Muslim League. From the anti-Qadiani movement through support of Zia’s policies to the present, where the various factions of PML have yet to condemn the violent Taliban in  strong terms, the PML has failed to give priority to the wishes of the common man.

The post-partition history of Pakistan Muslim League is rooted in the politics of pragmatism rather than upholding of ideals that had mobilized people to create a free country in 1947. The COD and the manifesto of the PML (N) solemnly pledge to evolve and strengthen parliamentary democracy in Pakistan .So far the political will to realize this elusive dream is conspicuous by its absence.

Parliamentary Democracy

The future of parliamentary democracy depends on the solid foundations laid in the past. In India, for example, one witnessed parliaments where no party was able to hold its majority. Since democracy was allowed to run its course without the shock therapy of extra-constitutional intervention, India, despite its baggage of poverty and social problems, has made progress on the national and international fronts. Pakistan’s experience has been entirely different.

A major reason for the failure of democracy to take root in Pakistan has been the prevalent feudal system with its peculiar political mores. The Muslim League, dominated by the landed gentry prior to partition, made no effort to replace or at least balance the power of the landlords with that of the middle class educated men and women, the cornerstone of any democratic setup. The landlords in the League prevented, with the blessings of the civil servants, ‘ any basic reforms in the country’s social structure,’[32] thereby obstructing the evolution of a potent political culture capable of producing and nurturing middle class political leadership.

Prior to independence, the landlords and the titled gentry consolidated their hold on the party. In the League Council, for example, out of 503 members the landlords numbered 163.[33]A large number had huge landholdings and post-partition their tenants served as voters, thereby effectively eliminating the genuine need for election campaigns that ensure contact with the masses. The Muslim League was in no position to implement land reforms. Feudal politics has, over the years, depoliticized the bulk of agricultural population and spawned a political culture of hostility and bigotry.

The earlier leadership of PML was reluctant to allow the formation of any other political party, equating opposition to the Muslim League with opposition to the creation of Pakistan. Liaquat Ali Khan, in view of the gravity of the various post independence problems, discouraged the emergence of political parties. He sincerely believed this would create chaos in the new state whereas a healthy opposition would have offered an alternative program to the common man and initiated the system of checks and balances sorely needed to supervise the conduct of the party in power.[34]The more politically savvy and motivated parties of East Pakistan should have been allowed to make a constructive contribution in this regard.

After Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination, the PML could not regain its strong position due to its political inconsistencies and lack of party discipline. It became the “handmaid of the government,”[35] supporting military and civil bureaucracy and colluding with the religious elements. Its loss of prestige came glaringly into focus as Ghulam Mohammad, a civil servant raised to the post of governor general, dismissed Khawaja Nazimuddin while he was president of the PML; the party, instead of protesting, readily accepted the premiership of Mohammad Ali Bogra, who was then ambassador in Washington. The rise of Ghulam Mohammad and the League’s soft reactions to his condemnable actions amply displayed the lack of political will in the party.

Different factions of the PML have, over the years, supported military regimes and bureaucratic powers to run the country or allowed themselves to be used as tools by military dictators. Between 1958 -1962 when the League was officially defunct, Ayub Khan promulgated the presidential form of government and created the Convention Muslim League that supported him in his election against Fatima Jinnah. The other half, the Council Muslim League, joined the united front of other parties, including the Jamaat-i-islami, to oppose Ayub Khan. Similarly the Muslim League-Junejo, that won the party-less elections of 1985, was handpicked by Zia-ul-Haq. Later when Junejo was dismissed, Nawaz Sharif, as provincial chief of the PML, welcomed the sacking of the PML government. His approval of Zia’s deplorable action was duly rewarded and he was made the caretaker chief minister of the Punjab.[36] After Zia’s death the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was assembled by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in 1988 to counter the PPP in the general elections. The largest party within the coalition was the PML and its most resourceful leader was Mian Nawaz Sharif. As the military wanted its agenda to be perceived as having public approval it supported Nawaz Sharif in the elections campaigns of 1988 and 1990.Later, General Mirza Aslam Beg, the then COAS and Lt.General Assad Durrani, the erstwhile ISI chief, admitted to ISI funding of IJI before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Sharif’s tenure as prime minister reflected a dichotomy between Sharif’s wish for economic growth-based policies and his deal with the military to allow it a free hand in matters related to national security.[37]

As the PML (N) gradually upped its anti-military ante after Sharif’s ouster by Musharaf in 1999, the PML-Q emerged as a staunch supporter of Pervez Musharaf. The president of the party Ch.Shujat Hussain’s father, Ch. Zahoor Ilahi, was a supporter of Ayub Khan before he fell out with the Nawab of Kalabagh, Ayub’s governor. He later opposed Bhutto and supported Zia. After Zahoor Ilahi’s assassination, his family continued to support the Islamization policies of Zia and remained loyal to the PML while it was close to the military. After the PML fell foul with the army in 1999, Shujaat and his close associates parted ways with Nawaz Sharif to support Musharaf under the banner of the PML-Q. They were duly rewarded with a resounding victory in the general elections of 2000.[38]

Both the Nawaz and Quaid-i-Azam factions of the present PML are associated with landlords and the wealthy industrial class. Both have so far failed to reach out to the grass root level and involve the civil society in working toward viable solutions to the contemporary problems facing the country, in particular terrorism. Sitting on the opposition benches in the 2008 National Assembly, both factions of the PML are meant to educate the people and help build consensus on issues of national importance. So far they have failed to accomplish this fundamental task to contribute toward the strengthening of parliamentary democracy.

The enactment of the Eighth Amendment in the constitution during the Zia era changed the rules governing the president-prime minister relationship. Article 58(2) (B) has been invoked since then with impunity to dismiss elected governments. The strengthening of the executive at the cost of the legislature has become the bane of the Pakistani politics. Nawaz Sharif, after coming to power in 1997, repealed the Amendment and restored the 1973 imbalance in favor of the prime minister instead of restoring a proper balance between the two. This he would have done “were he a statesman.” [39]

To be fair, the collapse of the parliamentary system in Pakistan cannot be entirely attributed to the misdeeds of the politicians. The institutional balance shift from politicians to the military-bureaucracy alliance began to take shape after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan. The political culture was deliberately undermined and the colonial configuration was reinforced through “consolidation of authority under bureaucratic and army auspices.”[40]Moreover,            a pliant judiciary resorted to the doctrine of necessity to validate military takeovers.

The politicians, and particularly the Muslim League, however, do not stand exonerated. The decentralization of authority was undermined not only by the hardnosed financial constraints and existential insecurities but also because the League lacked the devotion and commitment to reach out to the public. It lacked the political will to gain popular inter-provincial support, thereby allowing the state to rely on military-bureaucracy nexus for authority.

The Muslim League lacked a well defined future role in the post-independence scenario unlike the Congress that was an “organized and well disciplined party with distinctly defined social and economic ideals, with regular membership, which would subscribe to its objects and work for their realization.”[41] The post-partition Muslim League leadership failed to determine any definite objectives with concrete strategies for implementation while the Congress had already chosen economic uplift as its main target in independent India.[42] The economic crises leading to food insecurity in Pakistan in the 1950s can be attributed to the government’s “defective planning and absence of progressive economic policies.”[43]

Internal disputes and power struggle and the large scale bogus enrolment to augment factional strength accelerated the downward slide.[44] In the NWFP the factional strife was headed by Pir of Manki Sharif; in Sind by Ghulam Ali Talpur. In the Punjab the Mamdot-Daultana rivalry was destabilizing the party and in East Pakistan Bhashani and Suhrawardy created the divisions. [45] In this environment of conflict and disharmony the Muslim League was unable or unwilling to effect intra-party reforms urgently needed to initiate and help evolve a political culture in the country.

From 1947 to 2008 every coup has been welcomed by politicians opposed to their rivals ousted by the coup and thus, without exception, every significant politician has managed to ride “rough shod on the fundamentals of the (parliamentary) system.”[46]As Pakistan grapples with the fallout of the war on terror, the question arises whether the politicians of Pakistan are finally willing to take the first step on the long road to parliamentary democracy? Do they possess the required temperament to do so and also educate the masses on these lines? The PML (N) has so far been unable to pressure Zardari to relinquish the controversial powers accruing to him from the constitutional distortions and deviations enacted by previous military-dominated regimes. Does the PML leadership possess the political acumen and will to initiate organized actions in this direction?

The past record of PML (N) in government does not generate hope for the future. While in power, Nawaz Sharif seemed torn between initiating economic growth and supporting the establishment. To his credit he did try to strengthen the civilian government by initiating dialogue with India against the wishes of the establishment, for instance.  However, the attack on the Supreme Court on 28 November 1997 by his ministers, parliamentarians and PML workers, (that secured the ouster of the Chief Justice and the president in one go), symbolized the status quo orientation of the party. As Lawrence Ziring points out Nawaz Sharif’s performance in government during the ‘90s was reminiscent of the authoritarian model of Zia’s period that facilitated military intervention into domestic politics.[47]

Parliamentary democracy is all about devolution and dispersion of power. Without provincial autonomy and acceptance of regional diversity, democratic institutions remain at the mercy of chaos and instability. Provincial and regional harmony, the fundamental block of nation building, cannot be achieved in the absence of dispersion of power to the grass root level. The establishment, in the name of national security, has never favored autonomous provinces. The PML (N) in supporting reactionary forces with parochial interests has obviated inter provincial concord. By doing so it has perpetuated the post Jinnah –Liaquat thought process of the Pakistan Muslim League.

Provincial and Regional Harmony

The Lahore Resolution of 1940 envisaged that the Muslim majority areas in India should be grouped to constitute autonomous provinces. The principal driving force behind the creation of Pakistan was the “particularisms of Muslim provinces.”[48] Post-partition, the Muslim League supported the creation of strong central authority ostensibly to unite the diverse populace of the country. Debates on Khawaja Nazimuddin’s Basic Principles Report in the constituent assembly demonstrated there was conflict regarding the issue of parity and power sharing between the two wings of the state.

Pakistan inherited the regions with unique historical traditions, a factor that proved to be crucial in shaping its post-colonial experience. For example, while the Sindhi sentiment against immigrants was temporarily buried in the religious mobilization of the freedom movement it re-emerged later giving rise to nationalist leaders like G.M Syed. Similarly the Baloch-Pukhtoon ethnic violence of the 1980s had its roots in colonial history and was not just the product of the Afghan war. The Pakhtunistan issue and the alienation of East Pakistan from the centre are also part of the same historical backdrop.[49] The Punjab’s political importance was recognized right from the outset with Liaquat Ali Khan shifting his office from Karachi to Lahore during the campaign for the March 1951 Punjab Provincial Assembly elections.[50]The colonial inheritance of the Punjab ensured abundance in agriculture, industry and army recruitment. The continuation of the British policy of allotting land to servicemen resulted in convergence of interests between landlords and the military.[51] The secession of East Pakistan bolstered the big brother status of the Punjab which further spawned the anti-Punjabi feelings in the minority provinces. The biraderi (kinship group) system forms an “important locus of political authority especially in the central areas of the Punjab.”The PML failed to check the trend because of weak institutionalization at the local level.[52]

The struggle to frame a constitution started from the very inception of Pakistan under the rule of the PML. Both Liaquat Ali and Khawaja Nazimuddin dragged their feet and failed to accomplish the task. The delay was linked to the politicians’ inability to settle the question related to power sharing and parity between the provinces. The public and the press attributed the inordinate delay to internal bickering and political intrigue and factionalism. This incompetence of the League leadership paved the way for the dismissal of the constituent assembly by governor general in 1954.[53]

Ayub Khan, through introduction of Basic Democracy chose to tighten the stranglehold of the centre around the provinces. By extending bureaucratic patronage, politically and economically, he aimed to “bolster central authority without being constrained by parties and politicians with provincial bases of support.” [54] Ayub’s government, like those before him, ignored social diversities of the state and focused instead on administrative centralization. The power of the state lay in its selective grant of political privilege to pliable socio-economic groups.[55] The inability of the PML senior leadership to lay the foundations of a democratic political culture created the vacuum that the more organized military and civil service readily filled to the detriment of provincial autonomy and regional harmony.

The language controversy can be quoted as yet another example of the incompetence and shortsightedness of the Muslim League. Urdu had come to symbolize Muslim political unity in united India from1900 onwards. After partition, Liaquat Ali Khan refused to grant Bengali equal status with Urdu as the official language of the state although only 7 percent of the population spoke Urdu as their mother tongue.[56]The language controversy alienated the Bengalis and efforts to employ Urdu as part of nation building efforts proved counterproductive. The Muslim League failed to recognize the sensitivity of the issue and Nazimuddin, during his visit to Dacca in January 1952, declared Urdu to be the only state language of Pakistan. The PML, in the face of rising provincialism, failed to act wisely and realistically. In the words of Ian Talbot: “The national political elite refused from the outset to accord any legitimacy to Bengali grievances. They were at best dismissed as inspired by misguided provincialism, at worst they were seen as evidence of the existence of an Indian fifth column in Dacca.”[57] By the time the constituent assembly agreed to make both Urdu and Bengali as official languages of Pakistan, irreparable damage had been done to the PML image.

The PML failed to discern the mood of the people on the issue related to One Unit. The general public in East Pakistan and smaller provinces was opposed to the idea of One Unit. The League lacked well-knit organization that could serve as a link between the centre and the provinces. The open general conventions that served as a forum for party-masses contact were not held during the first nine years after independence.[58] In March 1949 when the idea of One Unit was aired in the constituent assembly by Firoz Khan Noon, it was endorsed by Yusuf Khattak, the general secretary of the PML. Later, the One Unit plan received a huge push after the League’s defeat in East Pakistan. The defeat could logically translate into a clear preponderance of the Bengalis in the national parliament of the future. Bengali dominance of the national legislature would have made “perfect nonsense of a strong centre, even if it remained under the control of an administrative bureaucracy and army drawn primarily from western Punjab.[59] In the backdrop of such developments the army and the bureaucracy used pliable politicians like Daultana and Yusuf Khattak of the PML to promote their institutional interests.[60]The One Unit was enforced, against the will of the Bengalis and other smaller provinces, on  14 October 1955. It had serious ramifications as “the concept of artificial unity was highly resented by East Pakistan and the smaller provinces of West Pakistan.”[61]The arrangement had to be reversed by Yahya Khan.

Over the decades, Pakistan has not been able to forge provincial harmony. After the debacle and resultant secession of East Pakistan, ethnic clashes in Sind and Baluchistan have been repressed by the state. The post-1971 state response is based on fear of ethno-nationalist movements like the one that dismembered the country.  In the recent years the leaders of the Oppressed Nationalities Movement (PONAM) have been insisting that the Constitution of Pakistan is deficient in meeting the aspirations of the people belonging to the minority provinces. They are critical of the existing system of allocation of resources of the state and point out that there is intense resentment towards the presence of the army in Baluchistan and its acquisition of vast tracts of land for the Gwadar Port. The absence of infrastructure and basic facilities like clean drinking water, health and educational facilities in the far-flung areas result in poverty and low literacy. The exclusive provincial resources are managed by the federal government and the people of the smaller provinces are not compensated accordingly. [62]

The direct and indirect military interventions in domestic politics have hindered the natural evolution of a political culture of accommodation and tolerance.Thus,Benazir was allowed to become the prime minister in 1988 only after Sharif was hoisted by the military to the chief ministership of the Punjab to ensure he controlled the provincial government and fuelled the confrontation with Benazir so as to “provide the army and the ISI with additional leverage for influencing domestic politics.”[63] The inability of the PPP to do well in the Punjab in particular “opened the disconcerting prospect of the federal government facing strong opposition by the IJI in the majority province.”[64] The PML thus played a major role in tacitly supporting the designs of the military pertaining to political leverage. The absence of accommodation and the tussle between the provinces and centre have been the two dominant factors of Pakistani politics. After Benazir’s return to power Punjab was at the forefront of this tussle. There were provocations on both sides.  The IJI government in the province with Nawaz Sharif as the Chief Minister kept the temperatures boiling. The party propaganda laced with anti-Sindhi sentiments projected the image of the IJI as the protector of Punjabi interests. The PML’s posing as the upholder of provincial autonomy lacked conviction.[65] According to Aitezaz Ahsan, the then PPP Federal Interior Minister, “Had Nawaz Sharif been in the centre he would have been the greatest opponent of provincial autonomy.”[66]

The tussle between the IJI and PPP took on the complexion of a personal vendetta between Benazir and Nawaz Sharif. Nawaz was unable to forgive her for her administration’s alleged victimization of the Sharif family  during 88-90.Nor was he able to rise above his rancor against the nationalization of Ittefaq Foundries by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s.He initiated cases of alleged corruption against Benazir and her spouse during his stints as the prime minister of the country. In 2007 he joined hands with the same allegedly corrupt politicians in the name of national reconciliation and democracy.

While in power, Nawaz Sharif did introduce a number of populist actions for poverty alleviation and social uplift such as fixing the minimum wage and the Yellow Cab Scheme. These actions have been censured for lack of substance and long term vision. His privatization program was criticized for inherent lack of accountability and eventually led to allegations of financial mismanagement.[67] His popularity increased as Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in Chaghai in May 1998. None of this can obscure the fact, however, that he adopted a confrontational mode of governance toward an equally provocative centre during Benazir’s time and demanded greater provincial powers while continuing to defy the central authority.[68]

It is also worthwhile to note that while the different factions including the PML (N) have often entered into alliances with regional and religious parties their leaders have refrained from openly condemning the abuse of human rights that occurs regularly within the provincial jurisdiction of landed aristocracy, waderas, pirs and tribal chiefs.

To this day the smaller provinces remain aggrieved and their feeling of alienation has begun to give way to violence and insurgencies. As the war rages in NWFP and FATA and gas pipelines are blown up in Baluchistan, the PML (N) leadership has yet to unambiguously denounce extremist violence and suicide bombings or offer any viable solutions to the problems of Sind and Baluchistan


It is undeniable that after independence, Pakistan was beset with multiple grave problems including the rehabilitation of refugees and genuine existential concerns. The initiation of a viable political institution, however, should have been included in the Muslim League’s list of priorities. It no less true that the highly organized military-bureaucracy axis inherited as a colonial structural legacy was too powerful and beyond the control of the fledgling political institutions. Yet, there is no justification for the Muslim League’s transformation into a pro-establishment party. Instead of adopting a principled stance it chose to undermine the aspirations of the people of Pakistan and the vision of the country’s founding father. Successive PML factions and governments have perpetuated this sordid tradition.

In view of the chequered history of the Pakistan Muslim League in general and that of the PML (N) in particular, it seems likely that the post-1999 anti-establishment stance of its leadership was based on anti-Musharraf sentiment; that the congeniality of the PML (N) leadership toward traditional political opponents, their offers of national reconciliation and verbal support for democratic institutions were in fact nothing more than slogan mongering. Now that the personal vendetta has translated into poetic justice have the daggers been sheathed once again? Is it farfetched to wonder whether Musharraf’s departure has dampened the passion for high-minded catchphrases and the PML leadership has relapsed into complacency, conveniently reverting to its traditional mould of doublespeak?

Nawaz Sharif departed for London within a few days of Musharraf’s ouster without initiating concerted efforts to mobilize the public or the media to press for the restoration of the pre-3 November judiciary. There were no calls for processions to protest the injustice meted out to the Chief justice of Pakistan; nor were any jalsas held to pressurize the PPP-led government into honoring its word. Could it be surmised that by relinquishing the demand for Musharraf’s accountability, Nawaz Sharif  has tacitly indemnified the extra-constitutional measures of a dictator thereby making a mockery of the Charter of Democracy? His actions give weight to the stories related to dubious deals with the establishment. Was the threat of the dormant corruption cases the deciding factor?

The long and unrelenting opposition to the Musharraf regime offered by the PML(N) leadership for almost nine years revived people’s  hopes for the future of the political institutions of the country.  The civil society of Pakistan, by participating peacefully in the lawyers’ long march this year, proved its willingness to mobilize for democracy. In keeping with its past record, the PML (N) failed to avail this golden opportunity to widen its vote bank and to initiate and implement a meaningful change in the political culture of Pakistan. With their government secure in the all important province of Punjab, the breakup with the governing coalition in the centre can hardly be counted as a sacrifice. Their lukewarm reaction to Zardari’s reneging on solemn commitments makes one wonder if the new face of the PML (N) is but a mask to hide the real intentions pertaining to a single point Musharraf-specific agenda? Did they actually fail to see through the intentions of the PPP leadership or could it be that the ostensible change of heart is not a watershed but an anomaly? If the apparent transformation is motivated by egotistical issues, the PML (N) will not be able to deliver on its promises of parliamentary democracy, provincial and regional harmony and the creation of a progressive state.

The Muslim League, which spearheaded the movement for the emergence of Pakistan, has fragmented and failed. Is the time ripe for a new middle class-led political party to emerge – a party that has the vision and the will to realize the original, pre-independence ideals that inspired the creation of Pakistan?

[1] Talat Farooq teaches at the Bahria University, Islamabad. She is also a poet and social worker.

[1] ,accessed on 9 October 2008

[2] Ibid.

[3] The International Republican Institute Poll, , accessed on 11 October 2008

[4] Ibid.

[5] See News Post, The News, Islamabad, 1st October 2008

[6] Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Lahore: Vanguard books (Pvt) Ltd.,2005, p.7

[7] Ibid., pp 4-5

[8] Pervez Hoodbhoy,, accessed on 20 September 2008

[9] Aug 11, 1947,Jinnah’s address to the First Constituent Assembly

[10] Pervez Hoodbhoy,, accessed on 20 September 2008

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jinnah’s Address to the people of the Tribal Areas, 31 July1947.

[13] Pervez Hoodbhoy,, accessed on 20 September 2008

[14] Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p ?

[15]Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, pp 143-144

[16] B.K.Ditta’s speech Constituent Assembly Debates (1949), Vol.3,No.3,p.45

[17]Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, p.143

[18] Ibid.,p.147

[19] Ibid.,p.148

[20] Ibid.

[21]Khalid Bin Sayeed, Politics in Pakistan: The Nature and Direction of Change, New York: Praegor, 1980, p.38

[22] Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, p. 49

[23]Syed Anwar, Pakistan: Islam, Politics and National Solidarity, Lahore: Vanguard Books,1984, pp.94-95

[24] Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p.28

[25] Ibid.,p.30

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Lahore: Vanguard books (Pvt) Ltd.,2005, p.117

[29] Ibid., p.129

[30] Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p.110

[31] Ibid., p.292

[32] Tariq Ali, Pakistan: Military rule or Peoples’ Power, New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1970, p.43

[33] Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, pp 138-139

[34]Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p.179?

[35] Mushtaq Ahmad, Government and Politics in Pakistan, Karachi: National Publishing House, 1963, p.138

[36]A.B.S  Jafri, , The Political Parties of Pakistan, Karachi: Royal Book Company,2002, p.89

[37] Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Lahore: Vanguard books (Pvt) Ltd.,2005, p.281

[38] http:// , accessed on 10 October, 2008

[39] A. G. Noorani, ‘The Parliamentary System in South Asia,’ Criterion,,p84

[40] Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990,p23?

[41] The Civil and Military Gazette, August 5, 1947

[42] Ibid.

[43] Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, p 49

[44] Ibid. pp 138-139

[45] Ibid., p.183

[46] A. G. Noorani, ‘The Parliamentary System in South Asia,’ Criterion,,p.78

[47] Lawrence Ziring, ‘Pakistan in 1989: The Politics of Stalemate’, Asian Survey, vol.30, no.2. pp. 127-129

[48] Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 23-24

[49] Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, pp 13-14

[50] Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990,p 145

[51] Ian Talbot Ian, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p.15

[52] Ibid.,p.30

[53] Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, pp.164-165

[54] Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990,p.303

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p.26

[57] Ibid.,p.133

[58] Keith Callard, Pakistan : A Political Study, London : George Allen and Unwin,1957,p.40

[59]Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990,pp 197-198

[60] Ibid.,p198

[61]Safdar Mahmood, Pakistan : Rule of Muslim League and Inception of Democracy, Lahore : Jang Publishers , 1997, p 158

[62] ,  accessed on 11October2008

[63]Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Lahore: Vanguard books (Pvt) Ltd.,2005, p.203

[64] Ayesha Jalal, , The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1990,p.327

[65]Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, pp.300-301

[66] Herald,20, no.10,p.89

[67] Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, pp.319-320

[68] Hussain  Haqqani, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, Lahore: Vanguard books (Pvt) Ltd.,2005, p.204