The rise and fall of Muslim League

KARACHI: Pakistan’s founding party, the All India Muslim League, now Pakistan Muslim League (PML), stands as the nation’s largest, yet most divided political entity.

On its 115th anniversary, it has multiple factions, each flexing its political muscle.

The Muslim League was founded on December 30, 1906, in Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, in British-ruled India and led the movement for an independent Muslim-majority nation culminating in the creation of Pakistan.

It rose out of a literary movement from the Aligarh Muslim University in present-day India.

In its heyday, it remained an elitist group, despite the presence of towering political figures like Sir Agha Khan, Nawab Waqar ul-Mulk, Nawab Mohsin ul-Mulk, Maulana Mohammad Ali Johar, and poet Mohammad Iqbal.

It was the founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, also known as Quaid-i-Azam or the Greatest Leader, who converted the party into a popular movement after he took the reins in 1934 amid growing Muslim nationalism in the region.

On March 23, 1940, the famous Lahore Resolution — also known as the Pakistan Resolution — was adopted at a massive gathering at the then Minto Park in Lahore under Jinnah’s leadership, demanding a separate Muslim state comprising five Muslim majority provinces.

Finally, on June 3, 1947, Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India, announced the partition of the country. On Augustt 14, Pakistan became an independent state.

Fall of party begins

Jinnah was elected the first governor-general of Pakistan, but he died a year after independence.

His death also coincided with the intervention of the military and civil bureaucracy and the fall of the country’s founding party altogether.

“The achievement of an ideal is always considered a success, but it simultaneously creates new challenges. The same happened with this party. All of a sudden, it became the Pakistan Muslim League from the All India Muslim League, having no challenge like the All India Congress,” said Akhtar Sandhu, a Lahore-based analyst who writes about politics and history.

Enumerating the events and reasons that preceded the party’s fall, Sandhu said the PML was unable to deal with the challenges in the newfound country.

“There was no leader with the calibre like that of Jinnah. Those (from other political parties) who joined the Muslim League in the late 1940s and later established their influence over it did not have the required commitment and dedication with the party,” he said.

Sandhu dubbed the “inner weaknesses” and “lack of democracy” within the party as other key reasons behind its gradual fall.

Muhammad Reza Kazimi, a Karachi-based historian, termed the assassination of first prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan — and a trusted lieutenant of Jinnah — in 1951, as the beginning of the party’s downfall.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Kazimi contended that Khan’s assassination was aimed at bringing the pro-feudal parties like the Unionist Party founded in 1923 back to power under a new umbrella.

“Also, the establishment had to create the Republican Party for its aims,“ said Kazimi, referring to a party formed in October 1955 by a splinter faction of the PML and other politicians for the creation of the province of West Pakistan to compete politically with then East Pakistan.

Endorsing Kazimi’s views, Mushahid Hussain Sayed, Pakistan’s former information minister, said that after the deaths of the two popular leaders Jinnah and Khan, the Muslim League became faction-ridden and lost its popular roots.

Concurrently, a bureaucratic “gang of four” comprising former Governor General Ghulam Muhammed, then army chief Gen Ayub Khan, former president Iskander Mirza and former prime minister Chaudhry Mohammed Ali effectively took charge, he added.

Back into the fray

Like the Indian Congress, the Muslim League stands divided into several groups. However, the PML-N led by deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif is considered the key faction of the party.

With its power base in northeastern Punjab, the PML-N is currently the largest opposition party with over 100 seats in the National Assembly, the highest after the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Political analysts give credit to Sharif for the rejuvenation of the party, which otherwise had been considered an establishment’s protege.

“The ouster of Sharif from power in 1992 (by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan) was the turning point not only in the political journey of Sharif but for the party as well,” said Abdul Khalique Ali, a Karachi-based political analyst.

Once considered a “blue-eyed boy” of the establishment, he contended, Sharif gradually started taking an independent view in terms of politics and international affairs after 1992.

According to Ali, Sharif’s repeated attempts to assert his powers as the chief executive together with his independent political views and infrastructure developments made him and his party popular among the people over the previous three decades.

Syed, who is also a senior PML-N leader, said in 1993, the party was revived due to Sharif’s performance as premier in terms of “development initiatives, law, and order, economic liberalization, etcetera.”

Secondly, he observed, it was also because of Sharif’s anti-establishment stance, which incidentally was on “my advice.”

“I told him ‘you’ve lost the game of palace politics and intrigues, your only chance is take on the establishment head-on and take your case to the people of Pakistan’ which he duly did through his famous speech of April 17, 1993,” Syed contended, while speaking to Anadolu Agency.

In his 29-minute speech, Sharif defied the establishment declaring “I will not take dictation,” and it is thought this act of defiance resulted in the end of his rule under pressure from the military.

In July 2017, Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court over the Panama Papers scandal, which also led to the filing of the three corruption cases. Not long after, the top court also barred him from holding the leadership of his party.

Sharif served as the premier from 1990-1992, 1997-1999, and 2013-2017, unable to complete even a single five-year term. His two previous governments were dismissed over corruption charges and through a military coup in 1992 and 1999.

In April 2000, he was given a life sentence by an anti-terrorism court in Karachi on the charge of hijacking a plane in which the then-military chief Gen Pervez Musharraf was travelling.

However, he went into exile in 2001 following a deal brokered by then Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz.

Other factions

Apart from PML-N, the PML-Q (Quaid-i-Azam), and PML-F (Functional) are other factions, which embody a sizable vote in the pockets of Punjab and Sindh provinces respectively.

Founded in 2000 by some disgruntled PML-N leaders, following the ouster of Sharif in a bloodless military coup in October 1999 by Gen Musharraf, the party ruled the country from 2002 to 2008.

Led by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a veteran politician and head of the Chauhdry dynasty of Gujrat district, the PML-Q is also an ally of Khan’s government with five seats in the 342-member National Assembly, and 13 seats in the Punjab Assembly, representing the largest province.

The incumbent Punjab Assembly speaker Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi also belongs to the PML-Q.

The faction is known for its close ties with the country’s military establishment.

The PML-F, which enjoys a sizable vote bank in several districts of Sindh, is more like a spiritual cult — called the Hurs — a volunteer force that took part in the 1965 and 1971 wars against India.

Famous for having close ties with the army, the faction — an ally of the current government — is led by Pir Sahib Pagara, a title for the spiritual leader of the Hurs. The faction currently has no representation in the National Assembly but has seven seats in the 167-member Sindh Assembly.

Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed runs his own group — Awami Muslim League — and often wins his constituency in Rawalpindi, which also houses the army’s headquarters.

Another small faction PML-Z (Zia) is led by a former federal minister, Ijaz ul-Haq, son of former military ruler Gen Zia-ul-Haq.

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