Along with Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif has been a symbol of Pakistani politics for the last thirty years. Over that time, Pakistani politics has grown increasingly cynical, parochial, personal rather than ideas based and dynastic rather than merit based. Although the country did experience some levels of progress when Nawaz was Prime Minister, a consensus among all but his family’s most diehard supporters is that positive change fomented in spite of rather than because of politics. The same can be said about periods when the Bhutto-Zardari clan were in power over the last 30 years.
To put it another way, if Imran Khan represents the Naya Pakistan (the new Pakistan) Nawaz and his family represent an old Pakistan – literally a place when old and familiar politicians dealt with issues that were small rather than profound, narrow rather than national, un-inspirational rather than global. Because of this, while the jailing of any public figure conjures emotions, the sentencing of Nawaz Sharif to seven years imprisonment due to charges stemming from corrupt practices, offers a clear visual signpost that reads “out with the old and in with the new”.
While some of Imran Khan’s supporters as well as some of his detractors are alternatively crediting or blaming him for the fact that Nawaz has been handed down a prison sentence, the reality is that Imran is overseeing an anti-corruption drive that is far more profound than any alleged vendetta against any single family. Iman Khan’s PTI was elected in order to transform Pakistan’s economy from one formed around of neo-feudal loyalties to one that combined the dynamism of an economy ready to open up to more foreign investment and freer trade with the principles of the Islamic welfare state that was the dream of Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah. PTI further won this year’s general election because the party represented an opportunity to view non-aligned foreign relations as an opportunity for the people as a whole, whilst by contrast the old mainstream parties as well as once somewhat powerful extremist fringe parties saw foreign connectivity as little more than a rote chore.
While for decades Pakistan ping-ponged between highly contentious democratic elections and periods of rule by a military dictator, the transition of power in 2018 was largely peaceful, dignified and one that ultimately produced clarity. Therefore, while many Pakistanis are celebrating today, the celebration should not be one that glories in the downfall of a man of the past, but should instead be one which harnesses the optimism of the future that PTI represents – not only as a political party but as a wider social phenomenon.
When the human and material shibboleths of the past collapse without anything new to take their place, dangerous power vacuums can emerge and in nations where this has happened, a bad situation can rapidly deteriorate much further.
But for Naya Pakistan, the new load-stones of a better era have already been erected by the people and they have done so at the ballot box rather than at the point of a bullet. Therefore, when symbols of the recent past fade into a more distant past, it is clear that a very new era has dawned for Pakistan. This by no means that the work of the new government is over – in many ways it has only just begun. But what it does mean is that a new sun has risen over the country and people must always remember to keep walking into the light lest they become complacent and once again let in the darkness.