Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from holding public office following the Supreme Court decision in the Panama Papers case at the end of July prompted dire predictions about his political future. A phase of volatility was widely anticipated, and one commentator wondered whether the conviction “could bolster a culture of accountability and uproot the dynastic politics epitomised by the Sharif family” in Pakistan.
Hereditary politics, however, has deep roots in the country (as indeed, in all of South Asia). In Pakistan, Sharif has survived political setbacks through his mastery and manipulation of pervasive kinship and patronage networks that define the country’s politics. His run in power was curtailed twice in the 1990s, and he emerged stronger from both situations.
In his ambitious tome Pakistan: A Hard Country (Allen Lane, Penguin, 2011), analyst Anatol Lieven illustrated how these networks of kinship and patronage permeated every aspect of Pakistani society, with biradari (kinship) — Jatt, Arain, Rajput, Gujjar etc — ties playing the key role in determining voting choices. Back in 2008, a Gallup survey reported 37% rural voters and 27% urban voters had attended biradari meetings to discuss whom to vote. In 2001, an article in the Berkeley Journal of Social Sciences noted a biradari “makes decisions of every aspect (political, social) and an individual is bound (by it)”. Biradari, it said, “is a stronger determinant of voting behaviour than party allegiance and the initial tendency is to treat it “as the primary determinant of voting behaviour”.
The Sharifs continue to tick many boxes crucial for survival, including their hold over their Kashmiri biradari, and their alliances with other biradaris. The Sharifs belong to Punjab, preside over a huge business empire, and have a strong base among traders’ groups. Punjabis account for around 60% of Pakistan’s population — which means the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) can form the government even without much support elsewhere. In 2013, Sharif’s party won 165 seats out of 339 in Punjab, where Kashmiris have a strong presence in the cities of Gujrat, Gujranwala, Lahore and Sialkot.
In 2015, the victory of Sharif’s aide Ayaz Sadiq in a by-election underscored the successful working of PML-N’s inter-biradari alliances. Sadiq is an Arain, who won thanks to support of his biradari and the Kashmiris — a compact that has worked in Lahore for decades. In fact, all but two mayors of Lahore since 1947 have been either Kashmiris or Arains. Similar alliances have been sustained elsewhere — Rajputs hold sway in north Punjab, the Jatts dominate the central part of the province, and the Balochs are concentrated in the south.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the Kashmiris gives them financial muscle disproportionate to their numbers. They began emigrating to Punjab for better prospects and to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Dogra rulers in the 19th century, and over time acquired influential positions in cities like Sialkot, Amritsar, Ludhiana and Lahore. Sharif belongs to the Amritsari community, the most prosperous among Kashmiris. The Amritsaris were among the first refugees to arrive in Lahore after Partition, and were allotted lucrative Hindu and Sikh businesses and properties. In 2012, the senior Pakistani journalist Amir Mateen noted that while migrants had generally done well, the Amritsari Kashmiris, who had arrived in Lahore from barely 30 miles away, had gone on to virtually run that city, with their political influence extending even farther — “the biggest example being… Sharif’s family… (which has) encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab”.
At least three Kashmiris — Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, and Railway Minister Saad Rafique — are part of the cabinet of Sharif’s handpicked successor, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is in his third term as Chief Minister of Punjab.
Sharif’s assured base was perhaps the reason for the confidence that underlay his adventurous and repeated attempts to target the Pakistan Army’s extraconstitutional say in policymaking. In July 1993, against the backdrop of Sharif’s tussle with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the Army forced the Prime Minister out of power. Sharif, however, had his revenge after returning to power with a supermajority in the National Assembly in 1997 — forcing the resignation of Army Chief Jehangir Karamat the following year.
Sharif replaced Karamat with Pervez Musharraf — a mistake, as subsequent events were to demonstrate. On October 12, 1999, when Musharraf — whose adventurism had precipitated the Kargil conflict that summer — was away in Sri Lanka, Sharif named fellow Kashmiri Ziauddin Butt to replace him. Musharraf however, staged a coup, taking both Sharif and Butt into custody, and subsequently forced Sharif into exile. Several years later, in 2008, a separate set of biradari alliances were to help the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) win the largest number of seats in the National Assembly.
The dynamics of biradari relationships favour the traditional parties and impede the rise of personalities like Imran Khan, who was seen as a serious contender in 2013 after a decade in the wilderness. But Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf came in a distant third in the National Assembly, underscoring the strength of entrenched power structures. Imran remains an urban phenomenon, commanding little sway in villages, where biradaris matter most. As of now, with the PPP largely confined to Sindh, Sharif does not appear to have much political challenge. He is running the government by remote control, and unless Pakistan’s judiciary deals him a new blow, another comeback to some kind of formal power would seem likely.
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