The multipurpose Muslim League
Pakistanis must be confusing the brand with the object. People don’t just use a vacuum cleaner, they Hoover their rooms. Similarly, Pakistanis don’t simply launch political parties, they launch Muslim Leagues.
Zia was an Islamist, Musharraf wanted to be secular. Both were martial law administrators with different names and in time both turned to MLs of their own for political reasons.
Ayub Khan was the first dictator and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the first leader elected in a general election. Ayub went on to found his own ML and ZAB was clever enough to ally with the MLs of Mumtaz Daultana and Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan as he recreated Pakistan after Dhaka fell. In East Pakistan, as an alternative to the ML the old Muslim Leaguers were prominent in the front that defeated the ML in the mid-1950s.
Fast-forward to the present, and guess who is holding the Zardari coalition together? The PML-Q, of course. The Q-League holds the office of the deputy prime minister: a utility man from a utility party who is minding the government’s low-price stores this Ramazan.
For anyone who can see, Pervez Elahi offers a way out for the ruling party from the mess it is currently in. Send Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on leave for a few minutes and make his deputy who is not from the PPP write that ‘Swiss letter’. Problem solved, and President Zardari is saved the ignominy of his party allowing a trial of shaheed BB. The ML is not always there to take credit. It is also handy for blaming a bad occurrence on. So long as the country moves forward.
Raja Pervez wouldn’t know, for he has existed outside the formula. And in case he doesn’t know, there are a couple of rare honours he shares with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. The dismissals of elected prime ministers were largely responsible for bringing both him and BB into the limelight. Equally significantly for a country so rich in clones of the All-India Muslim League, neither of these two PPP leaders was ever enrolled as an ML member.
This is a unique feat. All other elected prime ministers have been through the ML drill. Liaquat Ali Khan, Nawaz Sharif, Zafarullah Jamali, Shaukat Aziz and Yousuf Raza Gilani are the obvious cases. So is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a one-time general secretary of Ayub’s Convention Muslim League.
Even Benazir Bhutto had Malik Qasim’s ML as an ally, as she had so many who had chosen to give her 1988 an ML flavour. They joined the PPP just when it was about to come to power. And though he has always been idolising the Quaid, nobody took Imran Khan seriously until he secured his share of old Leaguers in Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Javed Hashmi.
The government-ML relationship has been long and deep and strong. All the people were required to do after the All-India Muslim League created Pakistan in 1947 was to find the right, genuine Leaguers to run this country. The people failed, since there was never a shortage of choices: Convention Muslim League, Council Muslim League, Muslim League-Qayyum, Muslim League-Khairuddin (or Qasim), Muslim League-Junejo, Muslim League-Nawaz, Muslim League-Jinnah, Muslim League-Chattha, Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam, Muslim League-Functional (or Pagaro), the Awami Muslim League of Shaikh Rashid, the All-Pakistan Muslim League of Gen Musharraf, the Muslim League-Zia of Ijazul Haq…
A few of these factions may have been unable to live up to the expectations at critical moments in Pakistan’s life. But the good thing is the dominant versions which the people have to now choose from retain their innocence to this day. This is something that oozes out from the chapters on history that adorn the websites of the PML-N and PML-Q.
The PML-Q’s introduction is marked by earnest reflection and bold confession: “the PML failed to devise a viable organisational structure and ideology” after the deaths of the Quaid and Liaquat Ali Khan. But today “The PML has entered a new phase of its history. It aspires to promote a culture of reconciliation and accommodation in politics. It has launched a massive campaign to organise itself at the grassroots. It plans to introduce reforms in the social, economic and other sectors of the society in order to bring about a real change in the life of the common man.”
The PML-N’s chapter on history is decidedly more thought-provoking, maintaining that “in 1947 the Muslim League … claimed the allegiance of almost every Muslim in the country” and being matter-of-fact about Mian Nawaz Sharif’s coronation as the League’s chief under Gen Zia.
As the elder statesman of this country, the most genuine version of ML is too sober to talk about the masala parts in between. If Pakistan is the Muslim League and the Muslim League is Pakistan, the repeated forced eviction of imposters from ML offices is a story in itself in this series. ‘Muslim League’ has only been a formality, a generic name. It is the brand that follows ‘PML’ which matters.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor, Lahore.