With days to go for the July 25 elections to Pakistan’s National Assembly and four provincial Assemblies, poll fever is at its peak across the country. In Lahore, every road, junction and market is covered in political banners. Several parties have put up posters with pictures of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal to show they are the true descendants of the country’s founding fathers.

On television, advertisements highlight the “achievements” of governments past and present. For the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the Metro Bus and the Orange Line of the Lahore Metro feature prominently. For Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, it is hospitals and police stations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Pakistan Peoples Party’s advertisements, featuring former president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, take credit for the construction of canals in Sindh and for providing clean drinking water to millions – though independent reports have countered these claims.

Despite strong allegations of the election process not being fair, there seems to be a vibrancy in the political culture, unlike in previous polls, with corner meetings, social media and advertisements all playing an active role. This vitality in the political process has led me to reflect on how political leaders appropriate certain historical characters and use them to gain political legitimacy. This, however, is not just limited to the democratic set-up or the modern concept of state. Throughout history, one finds references of rulers establishing political legitimacy through this process.

Akbar and the legacy of Humayun

At the peak of Mughal emperor Akbar’s rule in the 16th century, when he slowly emerged from the shadow of his advisors and expanded his control over the Indian subcontinent, his step-brother Mirza Hakim presented him with an ideological challenge. Hakim, who had set up an independent kingdom in Kabul but was looking to appropriate the legacy of the Mughal Empire for himself, made his way to Punjab, even reaching Lahore, on two occasions. Yet, both times, he was denied victory by the Mughal forces.

In many ways, it was the reign of Akbar that defined the Mughal Empire, its ethos and its milieu. Unlike the Muslim rulers before him, Akbar’s court was not dominated by his kinsmen but included members of various kingdoms he had incorporated. This prompted several Central Asian nobles who had lost their influence to accuse Akbar of betraying his Central Asian heritage. Unlike Babur, the founder of the empire, Akbar promoted a more eclectic kind of Islam, truly South Asian in its orientation. For many, this was a betrayal of the religion of his forefathers.

Several of these nobles who felt slighted by Akbar thus moved to Kabul, where Mirza Hakim headed a court more akin to a “democratic” nomadic council under a chief as opposed to Akbar’s court. While the Mughal court under Akbar aligned with the eclectic Chishti Sufi silsalah (order), Hakim continued his association with the Naqshbandi silsalah, a more puritanical Sunni school of thought, following the legacy of Babur. This was an attempt by Hakim to cast himself as the true descendant of Babur while projecting Akbar as the betrayer of true Central Asian heritage.

What also helped Hakim was that Babur was buried in Kabul. Vast funds were allocated to Babur’s mausoleum, while the garden around it was expanded. His death anniversary became an important day in this parallel empire, with free food and alms being provided to the needy.

With his step-brother Mirza Hakim appropriating the legacy of Babur, Akbar (in picture) turned to his father Humayun. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With his step-brother Mirza Hakim appropriating the legacy of Babur, Akbar (in picture) turned to his father Humayun. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

With Mirza Hakim appropriating the legacy of Babur, Akbar turned towards his father Humayun. He built a massive mausoleum in Delhi, following a style that incorporated elements of diverse architectural traditions. Akbar’s visits to his father’s mausoleum were much publicised occasions. Humayun’s legacy was an important source of political legitimacy for Akbar for it was Humayun who had first broken away from the nomadic leadership style and established himself as a king, and also broken ties with the Naqshbandi silsalah. Akbar never visited Humayun’s mausoleum after the death of Mirza Hakim.

Shahjahan and Jahangir

More than two decades later, Shahjahan followed a similar tradition. He had risen to the Mughal throne after a fierce battle of succession. On his orders, his brothers and even his nephews, who could potentially challenge him, had been executed. This was a departure from the Mughal tradition of blinding and exiling defeated or rebel Mughal princes. Shahjahan redefined the Mughal succession process, which repeated itself three decades later, taking the lives of all but one of his sons. The surviving son, Aurangzeb, ascended the throne, while Shahjahan found himself incarcerated.

When Shahjahan became emperor, his staunchest nemesis, the deposed empress Nur Jahan, was still alive. Shahjahan had spent the last few years fighting his father Jahangir. Now, after coming to power, and given the bloody way he had inherited the throne, Shahjahan felt the need to appropriate the legacy of his father. While it is commonly believed that the mausoleum of Jahangir was built by Nur Jahan, several historians say that it was actually Shahjahan who constructed it, since Nur Jahan had limited resources during his reign. A splendid structure was raised in Lahore. Shahjahan needed to prove that he was the true descendant of his father.

After ascending the throne, Shahjahan (above) also felt the need to appropriate the legacy of his father Jahangir. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
After ascending the throne, Shahjahan (above) also felt the need to appropriate the legacy of his father Jahangir. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But while he sought political legitimacy by latching on to the legacy of his father, Shahjahan also felt the need to discredit the powerful empress, who during Jahangir’s time had wielded real power and provided a formidable challenge to Shahjahan. Legends were crafted about how Nur Jahan and Jahangir had fallen in love while she was still married to her first husband Sher Afghan. And how they had connived to murder Sher Afghan, thus paving the way for their marriage. In many ways, the image of Nur Jahan crafted by Shahjahan survived and is still found in discourse about the empress. One can perhaps argue that she fell victim to fake news, a real threat in any election.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.