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Sinking Ship Syndrome

by Newsweek Pakistan

Arif Ali—AFP

Is South Punjab back on the cards?

As the National Accountability Bureau’s cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family neared their climactic denouement on April 9, eight Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) members of the National Assembly and two members of the Punjab Assembly—all belonging to South Punjab—resigned from the party and announced their intent to create a new South Punjab province. Their party is to be called the Junoobi Punjab Sooba Mahaz, or South Punjab Province Front.

As the ship of PMLN runs into another round of rough waters, those chafing under the impression that they have been marginalized are abandoning it. Young Khusro Bakhtiar, not long ago a minister of state for foreign affairs, summed up the farewell mood like this: “I greatly admire and respect Lahore but cannot forget the pain of the south Punjab where my ancestors are buried.” The feeling that Punjab is too big and needs to be “trifurcated” to make federalism in Pakistan viable is back, but at a time when the Sharif dynasty of Lahore is looking down the barrel of permanent ouster from politics.

The Sharifs’ last tenure in office (2013-2018) was dogged by instability fueled by agitation and abusive defamation till the courts couldn’t get their orders obeyed and the rupee started losing its value against the dollar. This was however nothing new. Politicians have habitually stabbed each other in the back to the advantage of the “third party,” the establishment. The decade of the 1990s, the period of boom for Asia and the subcontinent, was lost to a toppling game that kept the economy writhing underfoot. The time for the destruction of the PMLN has apparently arrived as the prospect of an already dismissed Nawaz Sharif going to prison has become all too real.

The Sharifs must find this familiar because they have known their partymen to jump ship en masse before. This time the process of toppling seems well-planned to an extent that some find it incredible. The Sharifs had fled a general’s wrath in 2000 and were provided shelter by Saudi Arabia, but this time there are no generals upfront despite half a dozen retired ones fulminating on the TV channels. The “rising” Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is bound to benefit from the downfall of the House of Sharifs but the coming political paradigm shift will take Pakistan into a new phase of instability through accountability that the country will never be able to handle without self-damage.

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