Muslim League, Military and Media: making of the Pakistani Sangh Parivar

By Dr. Mohammad Taqi


“… the (class) struggle (in France) created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

As the strategic dialogue – a euphemism for diplomatic hardball – starts between the USA and the Pakistani delegation, including Generals Kiyani and Pasha, there is more at stake then just the very ruthless endgame in Afghanistan.

It is a matter of time before the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) replaces the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to form federal government in Pakistan.

Punditry is fraught with the risk of making a wrong prediction and geopolitical events almost never follow the common sense but the bigger risk is the above scenario coming true – either through snap or term polls.

The Pakistan Army’s party-line regarding the future of Afghanistan – and its role therein – has been enunciated very clearly a couple of months ago. The part that the Pakistani security establishment desires to play in Afghanistan is not possible without having a political realignment at home.

Even a beleaguered and politically fumbling President Zardari and a floundering Asfandyar Khan, at the head of the secular PPP and the Awami National Party (ANP), respectively, are considered major stumbling blocks in the fruition of the national security agenda unraveled by the Army Chief in February 2010.

In its present form, the PML-N is the Army’s natural political ally in its quest for the strategic depth in Afghanistan.

Having played its cards well during the two year-long lawyers’ movement, the PML-N has evolved from an urban chauvinist enterprise, to a neo-populist party with its core communalist identity intact. Writing on March 13, 2009 for the Pakistan Link, California, this author noted that:

“The foreseeable outcome of Zardari’s actions of the last 45 days would be a right-wing mediocrity ruling the roost in the Pakistani heartland which remains sympathetic to the Taliban fascists going strong in the country’s hinterland. The Fabian Socialist leader of the lawyers would very likely continue to play second fiddle to the Brothers Sharif who have effectively taken over the present campaign.”

The circumstances and relationships developed over the span of the lawyers’ movement have indeed ensured that a grotesque mediocrity is now playing the hero’s part. The political and cultural milieu in Pakistan has made it possible for the inconsequential backbenchers of the Tehrik e Istaqlal to sit atop the PML-N, which is now the Pakistani equivalent of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

An Islamized, yet sufficiently pragmatic, urban Pakistani nationalist voter is the demographic that the PML-N caters to. In this, the party and the Pakistani Neocon media have found a confluence of interests, which is not entirely coincidental.

Many, especially in the electronic media, used the lawyers’ movement to distance themselves from their fundamentalist past and created a centrist illusion around them. Those who shot to prominence via exclusive interviews with the Al-Quaida leaders or deriding the secular-nationalist leaders through the state-owned Pakistan Television, re-marketed themselves, with great success, as the face of the modern and “liberated” Pakistani media. A good case study would be to track the careers of top three Urdu talk-show anchors, twenty years back.

However, it was only a matter of time before the centrist façade of the PML-N and its media allies came off, revealing an alliance of the extreme right-wing forces that has remained intact since the heyday of the Pakistani-Saudi-US anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Whereas Shahbaz Sharif’s fascist gaffe is still being written about in the English print-media, the Urdu television anchors killed the story in less than 48 hours. And they never did pick up on Justice Khawaja Sharif’s callous remarks. The very same coterie of the media anchors – taking cue from the GHQ- had ripped the incumbent government apart over the Kerry-Lugar Law for weeks on end.

Neither were Mr. Sharif’s remarks off the cuff nor their suppression by the media incidental. What we have at our hands is a Muslim League-military-media nexus trying to get all its ducks in a row before the top brass’ Washington, D.C. visit and more importantly for the final phase of the decade-long Afghan war.

Mr. Sharif was speaking his mind and that of his voters. Slip of tongue, if any, was Freudian. However, he was not supposed to say something potentially embarrassing for the Generals, right before their strategic dialogue with the US and hence the call to the headmaster’s office.

In a world where there is zero tolerance for the old-fashioned jihadist Mullahs, the holy fathers of the Jamiat e Ulama e Islam (JUI) and the Jamat e Islami (JI) are being replaced by the PML-N as the new matriarch of the Pakistani Sangh Parivar (Family of Associations).

The two former epicenters of the militant-Islamist combine, the JUI and JI are not just unpalatable for the West but they are too outdated to be sold successfully to the Pakistani urban voters who are Islamized enough to don a beard or hijab but smart enough to send their kids to private schools and put their faith in the neo-liberal market economy.

While the Hindu fundamentalist Sangh Parivar– led by the BJP in electoral politics – started as a formal alliance of the Hindu revivalist groups, the Pakistani version is an informal alignment of various political groups with the media – especially electronic – developed with the blessing of the security establishment.

PML-N’s connections with the Sipah e Sahaba and the Taliban are both by design and default. It now sits at the center of the concentric circles of jihadist outfits of various shades and is their sheet anchor in the parliamentary politics.

We are now dealing with a mass phenomenon – akin to the Hindutva of the BJP and pretty close to the European fascism – which creates a vivid enemy image by amalgamating elements from past ethnic, national, religious and social prejudices and the real or perceived current crises. This amorphous yet highly tangible image of an anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam West and the USA, is then projected through the modern media techniques with slick anchors leading the charge.

The enemy image is tangible in that my six year-old nephew in Islamabad blames the USA within minutes of a suicide bombing in Pakistan. However, it is amorphous enough for anyone to really know what to do with it. The opinionated talk-show hosts keep it abstract so that the common man keeps falling back on the crutches of Pak-nationalism, Islam and anti-West sloganeering of the PML-N, which appear like the panacea to evils.

Sangh Parivar in India had replaced the out-dated Jana Sangh with the BJP in 1980 and made full use of the hate-mongering media houses to destroy the vestiges of the Nehruvian secular polity. The Molotov cocktail of religion, nationalism and communalism was deployed to demolish the Congress party that was rotting from within. Rajiv Gandhi and his incompetent and corrupt secular government made the Parivar’s job easier and 1996 saw the BJP in power.

It is important to note that the BJP’s fundamentalism always took a backseat to its communalist-nationalism. Just like the Sufi Islam in Pakistan has been undermined by the ritual-based Wahhabi-Salafi virulence, the BJP made very selective use of the Hindu doctrines thus undercutting the spiritual core of Hinduism.

The BJP – like the PML-N now – had used religion as a detonator for its hate-filled ideology of nationalism and the media to lob this bomb into the Indian living rooms. The PML-N and jihadist punks of the “wake up Pakistan” campaign a la ARY television use enough religion to keep the pot simmering but make it subservient to the Pak-nationalism of the GHQ variety.

This formula for success is now being perfected by the Pakistani security establishment, which has commissioned its suit-clad proxies in the Pakistani media to unleash the anti-West mass hysteria.

Interestingly, the RSS antecedents of the BJP didn’t wear Khaddar or dhoti but sported the British Khaki shorts – they were about eighty years ahead of Hamid Mir, Talat Hussain and of course Zaid the red-hat Hamid.

Shahbaz Sharif’s remarks, his law minister Rana Sanaullah’s association with the terrorists of Sipah e Sahaba, PML-N local leader’s alleged involvement in the Gojra massacre of the Christians, are events which would have potentially brought a PPP or ANP government down, had they happened on their watch. The fade-out of these stories from the tele-media was well-orchestrated and efficient.

On the other hand, the views opposing the rise of the neo-fascist PML-N seem like a parallel play between the English editorial writers, op-ed columnists, bloggers and a lone TV anchor. Apparently we are talking past each other and certainly past the fumbling, floundering secular leaders.

Are the PML-N and its patrons in uniform and the holy lands, then invincible, and their game plan a fait accompli? The answer might be disappointing yes, unless those opposed to the rise of fascism in Pakistan get their house in order.

Without a coherent and cohesive secular response to the might of the “fair and balanced” rightwing media collaborators the Sangh Parivar’s Pakistani franchise is opening shop near you.

PS: Mian Nawaz Sharif’s volte-face this week on the constitutional reform package has been misread by many as a move at the judiciary’s behest. However, the PML-N leaders involved in this change of heart and its net negative outcome vis a vis powers to the provinces, point towards a stance in sync with the Army establishment.

(Author teaches and practices Medicine at the University of Florida and contributes to the think-tanks and Aryana Institute. He can be reached at

March 21, 2010

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