Bhutto’s saddest encounter, and a lesson for Nawaz Sharif

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Political pundits with almost all political leanings have been predicting a landslide victory for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N in the coming election, terming the party formidable for the opponents who've been in complete disarray for the last four years. They say that Imran Khan hasn't been shrewd enough and the PPP has no chance of a recovery in Punjab, leaving PML-N as the only viable option for the largest province of Pakistan.

At the same time, political workers of the ruling party are being harassed by its own government institutions. Initially it was a PTI worker named Salar who was summoned by FIA and was kept there for about four days before release but later on several PML-N workers were also summoned to FIA office in Islamabad where they had had to record their statements. Two quite popular Twitter supporters of PML-N, Umair Tallat aka ‘aadi’ and Dr Faisal Ranjha, haven't been seen tweeting ever since they were released from the FIA office.

And this is why I believe that PML-N does not stand a chance in the coming election. While many of the pundits would have based their argument on the fact that almost all the electables in Punjab are with PML-N and the party does have a support base strong enough to beat its opponents along with these electables, I feel that the party that Nawaz Sharif leads is waning in power with each passing day, because the supporters are being harassed by federal government institutions right under the nose of the party leadership. I'll try to explain.

Political parties in Pakistan have never been democratic. Even when they have been, after coming to power, their leaders have always tried to keep them as centralised as possible. As a result, party workers get disenchanted by the lack of interest from the leadership while the leadership gradually starts to feel that the sycophants around them are their real power base as the old guards gradually begin to fall. The party leader probably does it thinking that he is smarter than the rest of the world combined, but in reality he keeps digging his own grave throughout that period.

As in Bhutto's case, all his best men including Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Miraj Muhammad Khan, Dr Mubashir Hasan, Hanif Ramay, Mumtaz Bhutto, Rafi Raza, JA Rahim and others were side-lined and replaced by the likes of Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Masud Mahmud, Yahya Bakhtiar and Kausar Niazi. Mubashir Hasan recalled in his book 'The Mirage of Power' that when Khar asked Bhutto why had he opted for the team comprising civil and military establishments, 'his reply was frank and straightforward. Bhutto said that to come to power one needed a special team, but to retain power one needed another kind of team'.

Nawaz Sharif right now is probably also going through such a crisis. While he might be feeling that political workers like Umair Tallat and Faisal Ranjha are dispensable, or at least worth sacrificing, and the likes of Fawad Hasan Fawad are the ones he needs in order to ‘retain power’, this thinking might just be the recipe to destruction of what from the outset seems too big to collapse.

Here I'm quoting a gloomy passage from Mubashir Hasan's book and hope that someone somewhere might read it to PM Nawaz Sharif, who is walking exactly on the same path of self-annihilation that Bhutto was treading.

Having assured Bhutto that what I was going to say did not contain any element of personal ambition, I told him that I was immensely worried about him and the future of the country and the party. I said that his power was weakening with the passage of time. The people with him were no source of strength to him. When he would become weak enough, ‘they will nudge you overboard’. This was the strongest language I had used with the Party Chairman in the last seven years.

Bhutto listened intently. I must have sounded most serious. In the same vein, he asked:

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘I have come to suggest that you rebuild your power base among the people.’

He paused for a while and then said: ‘Doctor, what you want me to do, I do not have the power to do.’

I was shattered as I had never expected such a reply from the most highly regarded and strong prime minister of Pakistan. Both of us remained silent for a long time.

Breaking the silence, I asked him (main zara aap ka phone dekh loon) if I could check his phone apparatus. I picked up the apparatus, took a bunch of keys out of my pocket, loosened a few screws, detached a piece from inside it and passed it on to Bhutto.

‘Do you know what this is?’ I asked him.
‘No, what is it?’ he asked.
‘It is to bug your phone’, I replied.
Yeh haramzaday mera bhi kartay hain (These bastards bug my phone as well)’, was his spontaneous reaction.

Another long pause followed before he asked how I knew that the device was to bug a phone. I replied that I had detected it in my phone and had showed it to an expert who had torn it apart to find out what it was. Each device was individually numbered.

After yet another pause, he sent for Mrs Bhutto. As Nusrat entered, he extended his hand, passing the device to her, ‘Mubashir says it was to bug my phone’, he said to her. Holding the device against the light bulb, Nusrat declared: ‘This is in all our phones in the house’.

Bhutto looked baffled and after another long pause he asked his wife how she came to know of it.

She replied: ‘I did not know. It was Shahnawaz who found it in the phone in his room and suspected that it was you who had it installed to listen to his conversation with girlfriends. He checked all the phones and when he found that it was in all of them, he was satisfied’.

We sat silently for what seemed a long time before I took leave. It was one of our saddest encounters. What Bhutto had said was hard to believe. Could a prime minister of his caliber be really so weak, so helpless, or was it just his was to say no to me. It was not the first time that I had warned him. In the letter of 17 August, I had said that I feared ‘military intervention and disaster’ if he were to continue his policies. Bhutto telling me that he did not have the power to do what I suggested was quite unlike him. He was not a man to admit his powerlessness, and yet, by doing so he had struck a sympathetic chord in me. How could he be helped was the thought that dominated my mind as I covered the almost dark roads from Rawalpindi to Islamabad that gloomy evening.

Mubashir Hasan went on to organise Pakistan People’s Party in Punjab, mainly Lahore, and was able to bag all seats from the provincial capital, and probably the single most important city of the country politically. However, he wasn’t able to save Bhutto from the people like Yahya Bakhtiar and Masud Mahmud. And Nawaz Sharif probably doesn’t even have a Mubashir Hasan in his ranks.

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