Will the caged bird sing?

July 22,2018

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And now we are about there, holding our breath and looking before and after. While the polling starts on Wednesday morning, there has to be a 48-hour pause in active campaigning. Would you call it the lull before the storm or a tsunami? Or will the lion come roaring out of its den?

An election always has the potential to dispose of any expectations that may have been raised like a fortification. At times, an election can also trigger a shift that is of a revolutionary magnitude. So, what can the July 25 election do – or undo?

Sadly, the omens are not all auspicious. In the first place, we are not certain about how the democratic process will itself evolve in the aftermath of what has happened in the run-up to this moment of truth. In that sense, the results, whether deemed credible or not, may themselves be not as crucial as the realities that would emerge in the wake of the entire exercise.

Talking about omens, there have been several acts of terrorism across the country targeting election gatherings. The Mastung suicide blast that overlapped with the dramatic arrival of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz from London to face prison last Friday stands out in Pakistan’s blood-stained history of terror. Incredibly, the death toll added up to 150. Candidate Siraj Raisani was among those who lost their lives. Three days earlier, candidate Haroon Bilour and about 20 other people, had died in a bomb blast in Peshawar.

In fact, the overall security situation is considered quite serious and we have to keep our fingers crossed until the end of the polling on Wednesday. Meanwhile, it is difficult to figure out the game plan of the dark forces that are planting terror in Pakistan at this time. The obvious deduction is that the purpose is to disrupt the electoral process, and that those involved are the enemies of Pakistan.

One is also baffled and intrigued by the surge of extremist parties and groups in the present electoral contest. Not sufficient attention has been paid to this feature of the 2018 elections because the focus has largely remained on the travails of Nawaz Sharif’s party and the strokes that Imran Khan has been playing. To that extent, the election is seen as a nerve-racking contest between the PML-N and the PTI. But what about the religious brigade?

We had some intimations of the emerging scenario last year when the followers of Khadim Hussain Rizvi had staged their sit-in on Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad, gravely disrupting routine life in the twin cities for more than two weeks. A grim message was delivered in how the sit-in was resolved. We are in a better position now to decode some more passages of that message.

Even more surprising is the participation of groups and individuals known for their militancy and affiliation with banned outfits. There is a very plausible argument that we need to de-radicalise them and induct them into the mainstream. However, the underlying consequence is that the mainstream is being radicalised. One indication of this drift is that the major parties are also vying for the support, in specific constituencies, of these religious factions that are identified with extremism, intolerance and hate speech.

Consider this headline I read in The New York Times on Wednesday: “Violent Extremist or Political Candidate? In Pakistan Election, You Can Be Both”. Quite telling, isn’t it? It is a long report, with this intro: “Aurangzeb Farooqi is a leader of a political party that is banned in Pakistan for espousing sectarian violence. He faces charges of spreading religious hatred that was linked to the murders of several Shiite activists”.

The point is that he is among a number of candidates with ties to extremist groups. It is reported that petitions were filed by civil society activists seeking to bar them from contesting the present elections. But an election tribunal rejected these petitions last month.

In this respect, let’s consider reports published in our newspapers about a meeting between PTI leader Asad Umar and the former head of a militant group, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil. Asad Umar, it so happens, has had a distinguished career in the corporate sector that should inherently represent a modern outlook. He is contesting from NA-54 in Islamabad.

It worries me, in a personal sense, that someone like Asad Umar would solicit the support of the leader of a group banned by the UN. There has been some confusion about whether Maulana Khalil has joined the PTI. Considering the choices that PTI Chairman Imran Khan has sometimes made, this wouldn’t be surprising. However, Maulana Khalil, who is presently the leader of Ansarul Ummah, has contradicted social media reports that he has joined the PTI.

In a larger context, Pakistan’s politics is obviously afflicted with that Orwellian concept of doublethink, which means the acceptance of contrary opinions and beliefs at the same time. For example, Imran Khan speaks with equal fervour about the Charter of Medina and the secular Scandinavian democracy.

All this aside, we have finally arrived at a juncture where ordinary voters and not leaders will have their say. What do these voters believe in and how will they assert their choices? During election time, they are promised an escape from their prisons of poverty, deprivation and social injustice. Most of them know that these promises will not be realised.

Yet, the elections still excite deep passions in some people. In our low political culture, they root not so much for parties or policies but for personalities. Charisma is the name of the game. For that matter, Imran Khan, the old warrior, is pitted against Nawaz Sharif who, despite his three prime ministerial trophies, is only now becoming a leader.

Usually, elections allow the people a sense of participation in the political process. For a fleeting moment, they have a sense of power. They are treated with some respect by the high and mighty. It becomes a kind of celebration. It is fun to be part of a national movement. But that isn’t the mood this time. The stakes are high and the outcome is uncertain.

I have invoked Maya Angelou for the title of my column because I genuinely aspire for hope in difficult and limiting circumstances. The metaphor here is very much in tune with Urdu poetry. A cage or a prison is a recurring symbol in our poetry. I should have summoned Faiz to express my feelings. Hence, let’s hope we will see “wo din key jis ka wada hai”.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: ghazi_salahuddinhotmail.com


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