The renowned television anchor Quatrina Hosain was in tears. A day after the incident of her being sexually assaulted at a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) jalsa by party workers in Wah Cantonement, she talked about how the bruises may heal but not her emotional scars. She was covering election rallies and got invited by a PTI candidate Mohammad Sarwar to his rally in Wah. It was a sudden plan so no one could have conspired to misbehave. This is important to note, as many PTI workers have subsequently tried to blame the incident on Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s workers. However, when confronted with facts, PTI workers tried to hide behind the argument that women should not provoke people by coming out and mixing with them.
Hussain planned to raise the issue in a television programme. Her argument was, ‘Criticise us (women) for how we dress but that does not give you a right to attack us physically.’ She still hopes the PTI leadership will apologise publicly. I asked her if she was surprised given the arrogance and aggression of PTI supporters, especially on social media. The Christian Science Monitor correspondent Taha Siddiqui was viciously attacked and abused merely for suggesting that Imran Khan’s fall from the forklift on May 7th was an accident caused due to mismanagement of his security personnel.
Welcome to naya (new) Pakistan these above stories are a part of. This is not to point fingers at PTI in particular because other parties have their fair share of rowdy supporters; the other day PML-N workers broke down the wall of a stadium in a city to make way for their leader Shahbaz Sharif. This is to argue that what is being posited as naya is in fact as stale as the old. Even if the PTI makes it to power, conditions are not likely to be too different from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s naya Pakistan of the 1970s. The crowds which had risen on its feet for his support went totally out of control later, because Bhutto had told them about empowerment but not responsibilities. Consequently, the state used force to crush these people, resulting in such humiliating incidents like the police stripping students naked in Anarkali, Lahore, and beating them up.
Recently, PTI’s Imran Khan had to abandon addressing a rally because of utter lack of discipline during the inauguration ceremony of the PTI office in Rawalpindi. His supporters even broke or stole the chairs that were placed in a rally in Kasur a few months ago. If the behavior of PTI supporters on social media is anything to judge by, Imran Khan’s brigade will run riot whichever of the three possible scenarios come true for the party.
There is the ideal scenario that the Imran Khan ‘tsunami’ sweeps the elections. Although, it is not likely to happen, we must shudder at the thought of what this storm might do in the name of change. Pakistan is a great country where the elite abuse others by calling them elite and thus worth targeting. The PTI support base will hound anyone and everyone who is not part of their elite base. The other possibility is for the PTI to get a maximum of 30-35 seats. This case involves a double whammy of not being the tsunami that was expected and being forced to make a coalition with the less perfect parties in order to then form the government. This is a case in which the PML-N may get around 90 seats, limiting Nawaz Sharif from making a coalition. Then the PTI would have to make a government in coalition with the PPP, JUI-F, MQM, ANP and JI. Under the circumstances, the PTI could opt to sit in the opposition, in which case it will do nothing but ensure that the government falls as quickly as possibly paving way for next elections. The third option, of course, is making coalition with some of these parties that Imran Khan has lambasted all this while. The third option could break the party as its ideological base will get frustrated and even whither away.
One of the pre-conditions of the change mantra is that the PPP will lose badly. Some enthusiasts have even predicted the party getting limited to ten seats in the entire country, which is wishful thinking. The party will make gains in Sindh even thought it is likely to lose about 15 odd seats there out of a total of 61. It is likely to gain another 15 or so from Punjab and perhaps 2-3 in KP. The total will then be over 75, which gives it a safe margin to form a coalition with the help of MQM, ANP and/or JUI-F.
Such a scenario is likely to en masse depression amongst those who hope for change. For them, it is unbelievable that the PPP could manage to form government again, given its lacklustre performance. It is indeed a fact that the People’s Party did nothing to help ordinary people except provide jobs and other opportunities to its clients. This system contributed tremendously in damaging the fledgling education system in its own home province in Sindh where a large number of schools are used as stables or stores for the local waderas (landed-feudal). Some such schools will hopefully be vacated on orders of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to serve as polling stations. People in Sindh will vote for the PPP because the other alternative is hardly an option. Sindhis were of the view that the PPP at least they could abuse, but not the Pir Pagaro who is a spiritual leader and cannot be taken to task the same way as any other stakeholder.
Interestingly, the PPP is absent from the electoral scene. None of its leaders is out there campaigning. Bilawal Bhutto has security concerns and Asif Ali Zardari is barred from political activity. In any case, it would not benefit the party if Zardari’s face is shown too often as part of the campaign. The party continues to use the dead Bhuttos to muster support. Lately, it has also engaged in negative publicity against the PML-N, a party that seems to be under fire from three sides: the Army, PTI and the PPP. The Sharif brothers and the larger Sharif family are bending backwards to showcase their successes such as the Metro Bus project in Lahore. This is a transport project that services north and south Lahore. While there is a lot of criticism of the project, it does provide relief to many in the city especially the lower-middle class.
The PML-N also distributed free laptops to students to check the PTI’s growing popularity amongst the youth. In many ways, the PML-N is obsessed with Imran Khan, who appears to be the only one with the capacity to thwart their chance to rule the country for next five years. The Sharifs believe that they should now get an opportunity to form government.
Their obsession to return to power in Islamabad also pertains to the unfortunate way in which their government was ended in 1999 and they were packed off to Saudi Arabia in forced exile. Which is also why the army is divided in its support of the PML-N. It is popularly believed that the GHQ at Rawalpindi is likely to tolerate the younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, over the older, Nawaz Sharif. The younger one is seen as a satisfactory administrator who will play ball with the army. It is the older brother that the generals don’t like as he is the one who is ideologically poised and less willing to take it lying down from the army.
In a recent interview with the Indian journalist Karan Thapar, Nawaz Sharif talked about setting up an inquiry commission on Kargil. He is also not ready to forgive Pervez Musharraf and many generals feel he will not be compromising. Many observers, therefore, argue that Sharif’s ascendency to power will offer a major challenge for civil-military relations. People in touch with inner circles of the army and the ISI talk about the apprehension that Nawaz Sharif’s government will be a death knell for the military’s influence. These sources even suggest that the confrontation could be avoided if Nawaz Sharif opts to become Pakistan’s Sonia Gandhi and lets someone else from the party become prime minister. That, however, is not his style.
It is worth appreciating that forming a government is a matter of life and death for both PTI and PML-N (the PPP is psychologically and emotionally more of a spoiler this time). The Sharifs do not want to lose any seats. This compulsion is one of the many reasons that forced PML-N into a seat-adjustment alliance with the political wing of the banned Deobandi militant outfit, Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) which is contesting elections under the banner of Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The agreement is meant to capture thousands of SSP votes scattered all over Punjab and Sindh. It could also be argued that this partnership is a natural extension of the deal which was struck between the PML-N and the SSP way back in 2008. According to this deal, the SSP had agreed not to contest elections against Shahbaz Sharif and not to physically hurt the family in return for the party providing jobs to SSP workers and freeing one of its key leaders, Malik Ishaq, provided that the courts freed him. The agreement worked out well for both.
It was also this relationship that General Kiyani alluded to in one of his recent speeches. The only issue is that Kiyani’s warning is too little too late. Allowing militant outfits to contest elections is bound to provide them greater depth and penetration in the society. It will further radicalisation, which does not bode well for religious minorities.
The final outcome of the elections is a big mystery. The answer depends on several imponderables, starting with where the youth will put its weight. However, every time I am asked to review the situation I am reminded of the scene at the Islamabad airport international departures. Since the authorities have decided to open only one gate, there are long queues especially as there are usually 3-4 flights checking in at the same time. The waiting in line is inevitably always accompanied with some fight as some people try to jump the queue. But once inside the building there is endless checking by the Anti-Narcotics force, followed by the Airport Security Force. By the time passengers are through with another queue for check-in they are fairly exhausted. Their patience runs out at the third queue for the immigration. There you can hear some people cursing the country and the immigration staff jeering at them for living abroad as ‘second class’ citizens. This always ends in hot exchanges.
Naya Pakistan is like waiting in an endless series of queues. People get frustrated also because the bar in terms of expectation of change has been set too artificially high. No one is telling ordinary folk about the sacrifices they will have to make personally to bring the transformation. Making right choices in elections is just the first set of queues. Other lines have to be made to bring structural change that people expect will come from heavens, or with just the change at the top.
This in Pakistan is a time to vote and say a prayer for sanity.
(Ayesha Siddiqa is a Pakistani political commentator and author of Military Inc. She is@iamthedrifter on Twitter.)