Landings and take-offs

July 15,2018

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A Friday the 13th it was; made more ominous by a partial solar eclipse. And this Friday the 13th was attended by momentous events that are bound to greatly impact the July 25 election campaign and the options that are available to its major players.

In the first place, we had waited, with bated breath, for Nawaz Sharif – who, incidentally, was banned for life from holding political office on a Friday the 13th as well – and Maryam Nawaz to arrive from London to be arrested and put in prison against the backdrop of a show of force by the PML-N. But the day was also visited by two separate acts of terror, the more horrific being the suicide bombing in Mastung. Clearly, some fateful consequences are in the offing.

It is prudent to not be superstitious, though the leader who would be prime minister – as yet – seems inclined to believe in omens. So, what are the messages that we need to carefully interpret? As for the solar eclipse, the astrologers promise new beginnings – also of a transformative nature. Besides, this is a time of emotional turmoil and mental disquiet. The advice is to keep your cool and try to adjust to some new realities.

This, in a broader sense, has been an action-packed week. This is what should be expected, since the D-Day is fast approaching. But developments that are not entirely related to the electoral process also attract attention.

Dominant in these pursuits has been the saga of the Sharif family. Here is a story with its assorted human dimensions. A political leader elected thrice as prime minister is sentenced to 10 years in prison by an accountability court. His daughter, tried with him, is given seven years. During this time, his wife lies in a London hospital, on a ventilator. The verdicts are delivered while the father and daughter are in London.

When Nawaz Sharif and Maryam decided to land in Lahore, the focus partially shifted from electioneering in Pakistan. Or, perhaps, it provided a new edge to the conflicts that have polluted our politics. The fury with which Imran Khan has been attacking Nawaz Sharif and the party that bears his name is a reflection of the polarisation that has made any coherent and balanced political discourse almost impossible.

What we have, then, are two faces of a reality that cannot be objectively described. Yet, there has to be some measure of what actually has happened during this week and how will it strengthen or weaken the stance of this or that party. Thankfully, Nawaz Sharif’s and Maryam’s return, with all its sense of drama, was largely peaceful and did not lead to any fearful mishap, in spite of the initial enthusiasm of the caretakers.

But we have to now contend with a sudden and terrifying surge in violence in which two candidates and such a large number of political workers have lost their lives. What does this portend? We have many questions which cannot be easily answered. In any case, a pall of fear has descended on the election activities. This is not how we can nurture the essential values of a democratic dispensation.

Tuesday’s suicide bombing in Peshawar was a major shock. A senior leader of the Awami National Party and candidate for a provincial assembly seat, Haroon Bilour, was one of more than 20 people who were killed. It happened during a late-night corner meeting. This tragedy was all the more heartrending because Haroon’s father, Bashir Bilour, was also killed in a suicide bombing in 2012.

One could not have expected that this act of terrorism would be overtaken by a more severe explosion only three days later. Just as when the nation was distracted by the running commentary on Nawaz Sharif’s passage to Pakistan came the news of a suicide bombing in Mastung on a campaign rally. It is instructive that the news came in short spurts, with reported casualties gradually rising. Finally, the figure climbed, unbelievably, to nearly 150.

Again, a provincial assembly candidate, Nawabzada Siraj Raisani, was among the dead. Again, this calamity had a tragic history. Siraj Raisani’s teenage son, Hakmal Raisani, had been killed in a grenade attack on his vehicle in the same district in 2011. Siraj was also in the vehicle but he escaped unhurt.

There was another terror attack earlier in the day on Friday. At least four people were killed and more than 30 were injured in a bomb blast near the convoy of former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Akram Khan Durrani in Bannu. Durrani is contesting the election on a National Assembly seat and Imran Khan is one of his opponents.

Certain aspects of the Mastung suicide bombing should make us think about the role and capacity of the media in its coverage of national affairs. Yes, Mastung is so far away in the traditionally overlooked province of Balochistan. Only a handful of television reporters based in Quetta may have been there. Also, all media eyes were fixed on Lahore and on the arrival of Nawaz Sharif.

Consequently, we have this agonising example of how a major story worthy of international attention was so frightfully underplayed. This is not the occasion to look at the present state of the media and mourn for its lack of professionalism. It is sad that what cannot be visually projected is not given much importance by our channels when it comes to hard news.

In any case, a lot has happened this week and we will need some time to decipher the overall situation that is now emerging. The big question is whether the terrorists have a plan to disrupt the present electoral process and if there is a threat of street violence when the campaign becomes more intense and confrontational. Already, the antagonistic nature of the contest, mainly between the PTI and PML-N, raises doubts about political stability after the elections.

During his flight to Lahore, Nawaz Sharif is reported to have said that Pakistan has now become a battlefield. At another level, it is Nawaz’s own battle for survival. On Friday, the rallies in Lahore were led by Shahbaz Sharif. Does this mean that Shahbaz is moving closer to his brother’s narrative? Is it possible for him to be radicalised?

Finally, there has to be a sensible assessment of the show that the PML-N was able to stage on Friday. It is possible to argue that the caretakers’ shoddy performance in dealing with essentially a law and order problem had benefited the supporters of Nawaz Sharif. It is unlikely in the present charged environment that there are a substantial number of undecided voters. Did some of them make a choice on Friday?

The writer is a senior journalist.



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