EDITORIAL: Pakistan’s most extraordinary politician

The kind of respect, even admiration, that has been commonly showered on Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan (1918-2003) following his death on Friday says something about the personality of an extraordinary man. His long and full life suffered little from the usual ills of senility. His memory never seemed to falter even as his body declined, testifying to the mental capacity of a human being. He emerged as the great political ‘binder’ of Pakistan in the post-1988 period when national politics was cruelly polarised and there were no principles to serve as a minimal collective platform.

The Nawabzada was a thorn in the side of every party in power and a true comforter of those ‘in the wilderness’. That is why it isn’t surprising to note that some of his tribute-makers today are known to have criticised him and questioned his credentials when they were in power. His great achievement lay in the fact that he became the great alliance-maker among politicians who could not communicate with one another and were more prone to look to the army as their arbiter. By Pakistani standards of dictatorship and democracy he was a great man, even though he was sometimes seen in the role of an anarchist who was constantly facilitating the fall of every imperfect government.

Feudal to the core, Nawabzada Nasrullah was born in the house of the Nawab of a small principality in 1918 and was sent to Aitchison College Lahore, the institution for the scions of ‘the chiefs’ that had helped the British Raj run itself. He was trying to graduate at a college in Multan when marriage was mandated for him by the family and he dropped out. (When General Musharraf’s LFO disqualified undergraduates in 2002 he was its first victim.) He was attracted to Majlis-e-Ahrar in 1933 and began his political career among forces arrayed against M A Jinnah and his Muslim League.

The great Ahrar leader Ataullah Shah Bokhari spent his pro-Congress oratory in opposition to all that Pakistan was to stand for after 1947. Historian Ashiq Batalvi notes that the Ahrar party did try to throw in its lot with the Muslim League in 1936 but the deal came unstuck when the Quaid could not come up with the funds that the Ahrar demanded. During this time, Nasrullah used to edit the Ahrar journal and mixed with the likes of Shorish Kashmiri. But he never entertained extremist views; nor was his politics ever mercenary. (One has to excuse the few perks of office he seemed to enjoy in his later years — a Lexus car, a job for his son as a provincial minister and chairmanship of the Kashmir Committee in the last Bhutto government.)

Like most feudals, he didn’t opt for the politics of religion. After Ahrar, Nawabzada had to come into the fold of the Muslim League and was elected on its ticket to the Punjab Assembly in 1952. But he was not combative enough to enter the lists in the Daultana-Mamdot jousting match that destroyed provincial politics. However, in 1962, he was elected to the National Assembly under General Ayub Khan’s constitution and tasted the pleasure of alliance-making — his forte in politics — for the first time.

The politics of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) culminated in another alliance under the Democratic Action Committee (DAC) that gave political direction to the countrywide agitation against Ayub Khan in 1968. In due course, the Nawabzada became one of the leading lights of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that facilitated General Ziaul Haq in the ouster and hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Nasrullah’s Pakistan Democratic Party (PDP) joined the Zia cabinet to claim the spoils together with other PNA parties. But the irony was that it was the Nizam-e-Mustafa slogan of the religious parties inside the PNA that had inspired General Zia to try and transform Pakistan into a theocratic state. Nasrullah was soon disenchanted with General Zia. The same disenchantment followed with partisan politics after Benazir Bhutto plumped for Ghulam Ishaq Khan and ignored Nasrullah’s claim to the presidency in 1988.

Nasrullah set up the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against General Zia in the 1980s and got the PPP to sit together with its mortal enemies to fight General Zia collectively. A realisation of past miscalculations had made Nasrullah adept at finding common denominators in the thinking of ‘politicians in the wilderness’. He alternately opposed both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in power in the 1990s, except that in Ms Bhutto’s second term in 1993, he accepted chairmanship of the Kashmir Committee, immediately showing what a fish-out-of-water he was in matters other than the nitty-gritty of domestic politics. His mind focused relentlessly on the purity of the constitutional process. But he was a complete flop when it came to national issues requiring fresh and original thinking. For instance, he knew that if he took a stand on human rights and the rights of the minorities he would lose the consensus of the diverse political parties so crucial to his alliance politics. Therefore he was true both to his feudal background — he didn’t opt for the politics of religion — as well as to his alliance politics which stopped him from expending much thought on civil society and its many grievances against the state.

His appeal was great especially for politicians often thrown on bad times who were looking for new platforms to exploit. It didn’t matter to him that they might have been inefficient or corrupt because the ones who had replaced them were no less so. For the state, however, he was an object of curious and benign neglect because he did not indulge in confrontational politics and kept good contacts in the establishment with even those who opposed his views. His proverbial mangoes, it is learnt, continued to massage many inflated political egos until his dying day. He will be remembered for the wonderful work he did in assuming the role of a speedbreaker for every democrat in a hurry to become a dictator. *

Daily Times, Lahore , 2003,09,29