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In Pakistan an election about nothing

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Imagine an election year in which no one asks or answers any of the more complicated questions that this country faces. Some would say that is exactly what many opponents of Pakistani democracy have long fantasized about: a democracy so magnificently bereft of substance that it becomes a parody of itself. A PML-N without the N, a PTI with the same playbook as 2013, and a PPP that is so desperate that it makes deals on Balochistan just to get into the conversation.
Could the country’s compromised political parties be the ingredients to a nothing election? Could the 2018 election become a contest between everyone about nothing? A contest in which no one asks or answers any of the most complicated questions?
In Peshawar on Sunday, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) organised yet another successful protest under the leadership of ManzoorPashteen. The young Mehsud has become a lightning rod on social media: the subject of hero worship among those with whom his message resonates, and the target of the standard treatment from hyper-nationalists for whom all challenges to the republic reek of the malodorous stench of enemy conspiracies. The young leaders of the PTM have enjoyed a remarkable connectivity with Pakhtuns and non-Pakhtuns through a narrative that privileges peace and contests the overarching post-APS national security narrative. This should make mainstream Pakistanis uncomfortable.
As a great admirer of the Pakistani military’s huge successes since June 2014 in particular, I am especially concerned that the hard won victories of the army would be challenged in this way. My own preference is that the questions that the PTM raises be dealt with fairly and robustly. If there is a disappearing persons crisis, the solution is for the authorities to produce the missing persons, not to label those asking questions as traitors. If among those that have allegedly been picked up by the authorities, there are people who have aided and abetted terrorism or other criminal activities, then such criminals need to be prosecuted. If open trials are not viable because of security concerns, then the country has a number of military courts that can be utilised to fast-track the cases of what were once referred to as jet black terrorists. The bottom line is that we don’t need to accept and adopt every untoward chant at a PTM rally as a reflection of our politics or ideas, and we can easily dismiss claims that are wild and inappropriate – whilst also responding to legitimate questions.
The old-school Pakhtun nationalists in the ANP and the PkMAP are desperately trying to hack the PTM because for the first time in several decades a young corps of activist Pakhtuns is claiming three things simultaneously: equal Pakistani citizenship that does not discriminate, full Pakhtun identity that is not apologetic, and robust political expression that does not compromise. The PTM is doing all this without playing by the informal rules of the game that the Wali Khans and Achakzais seem to have agreed on. So the question in the 2018 election could be: what is the rightful place of Pakhtuns in Pakistani society, and how do young war-ravaged Mehsuds and Wazirs fit into the equation beside those Durrani, Khattak and Yousafzai cousins of theirs that enjoy a fuller and richer experience as citizens and beneficiaries of the state?
Or the question could be: how do encounter specialists like Rao Anwar fit into a republic that envisions itself as being inspired and guided by notions of Islam, and of justice? Is one Rao Anwar worth more than thousands of Mehsuds? Or hundreds? Or the question could be whether the military, whilst being the glue that has held the country together, may also have made some mistakes in trying to deal with impossibly complex problems like the conversion of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into a war zone, and therefore needs to invest in a thorough introspective process that identifies what those mistakes have been and how they can be dealt with. And of course, if that was one of the questions, a follow-on question would be whether there is any latent institutional trust in the country that would allow for such a process to be conducted without the shadow of the civil-military disequilibrium that plagues us.
A general election seems to be a good time for this kind of conversation to take place, but what we are seeing instead is a national conversation that has managed to largely evade and avoid engaging the questions that the PTM is raising. As for the objectionable language and postures that have been adopted by some that associate themselves with the PTM, this is nothing new. This country has long tolerated poor behaviour by young people on account of youthfulness and ‘junoon’ and other various legitimators of over the top expression: a few condemnable chants at a rally cannot become the basis of sweeping legitimate questions under the carpet.
Whilst we evade uncomfortable questions in Pashto, another tactical own goal is being fashioned with the undeclared targeting of Geo News. Here it is not one topic or one issue that is being evaded, but an entire platform for asking questions that has been deemed unworthy of existing. The problem with such an approach, even if every claim against the channel is to be accepted at face value, is that it creates a precedent. Today, one platform is deemed too much of a risk to the narrative that the authorities seek to establish, tomorrow it will be another. Where does it end? Every country has a preferred version of reality – but not everywhere is a war waged on the largest and most influential national news platform. Does it bode well for Pakistan that a key platform for asking questions is being asphyxiated in an election year?
Meanwhile, the world around Pakistan is changing at a pace that is unprecedented. There are a host of questions about how Pakistan relates to the rest of the world that need to be asked in an election.
In Kashmir, and across India, Pakistan has had no answer for NarendraModi. The fiction weaved by the Noonies is grand: Nawaz Sharif suffered Panama because he dared to dream about a better relationship between Pakistan and India. The fiction weaved by Pakistani strategists is ever grander: Hafiz Saeed as political grandmaster is a viable option for dealing with the Lashkar e-Taiba problem, which itself was once conceived as a viable option for dealing with the Kashmir problem.
Kashmir is in a worse situation than it has been since the 1990s and India is stronger today than perhaps at any point since 1947. Is there any party or politician that has a credible or coherent case to make about how the Kashmir problem might be resolved?
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is establishing a network of new strategic relationships, and one instrument of sealing those relationships is the S-400 missile system. Widely seen as among the most potent anti-aircraft systems in the world, the S-400 is headed to Turkey (at $2.5 billion), Saudi Arabia (at $3 billion), and India (at $5 billion). How much will Pakistan’s S-400 deal be worth? And how does slashing income tax rates square with Pakistan’s growing needs?
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is undertaking a reform of state and society with a scope and speed long considered unimaginable for that country. As Saudi Arabia modernises, how will Pakistani interests be served or undermined? Is there any party or politician that has a coherent or credible vision for how this vital relationship can serve Pakistan for the foreseeable future?
Is there a better time than an election year to ask these complicated questions? And without such questions, could the 2018 election become a contest between everyone about nothing?