It has become increasingly difficult to trawl through social media. Even for those who may not be strictly puritan in terms of their acceptance of occasional harsh language, the kind of words and phrases and highly objectionable messages concerning politicians, usually those who are currently part of the political opposition, is disturbing.
Tolerance for political difference is always desirable. What is undesirable however are uncouth attempts to ridicule persons by jeering them, gloating over their current misfortunes or attacking them through open profanity. This is simply unpleasant and goes beyond the realm of acceptable behaviour.
Yet it has increasingly become the norm. In the Pakistan of today, we attempt to tear down individuals, showing no sensitivity either for them, their families or others who may support them. It is also true that in at least some cases, these politicians have not yet been convicted of any crime; in some cases, they have in fact been acquitted by courts over and over again.
And even those who may be behind bars deserve as human beings respect and dignity. It is difficult to say what purpose can possibly be served by hurling abuse at them or consistently belittling them. The practice is rather akin to a bully lashing out at smaller children, knowing they cannot defend themselves, or turn to anyone who counts as a reasonable and just arbitrator. This is a world inhabited by many bullies and many tormentors who seem to have missed out on the vital lessons of decency, respect for others or the realisation that one day, they could find themselves in a similar position to those who they currently mock.
More dangerous is the divide this is creating within our political reality. Hatred has existed in the past, on the basis of religion, sect, ethnicity or other factors. Rarely has politics been divided along the same lines. Despite the bitter wars between the PPP and the PML-N which marked the divisive politics of the 1990s, this kind of acrimony and behaviour unacceptable within most societies is new. It leaves an extremely unpleasant taste in the mouth. It is also, quite simply put, not worthy of any individual and any group. It undermines their standing rather than that of the persons they are attempting to target.
The number of supporters who have adopted the same behaviour it is even more terrifying, even though, fortunately for many of us, the number seems to have begun to fall. After all, many Pakistanis are seriously considering how they are to survive in a situation where inflation continues to soar, the prices of basic utilities rise steeply and there is no stability and no sense of purpose as far as economic policy goes. Ahead of political conviction, people are thinking about their own futures and what these will look like in the coming months.
It is true that because of its lack of experience with democracy, with 31 years spent under military rule and more under indirect military rule, Pakistan has struggled to develop the norms and practices that should inherently form a part of any government intended to serve the people. The resignations after major disasters of at least three Indian railways ministers in 2016, 2017 and a short while ago indicates that a sense of accountability or responsibility has woven its way into that country’s undoubtedly flawed systems. In more developed democracies, there is an even greater sense of these values. The resignation of the prime minister of Iceland in 2016 immediately after the Panama Leaks is just one example. There are many others from countries around the world, including those in our immediate neighbourhood.
Pakistan lacks such precedents, does not seem to be developing them and appears to have developed the dangerous belief that anyone in power can use authority in any fashion they choose without any check or balance, whether self-imposed or coming from within their party. As people, we expect from those whom we elect responsible, civilised conduct which sets an example for others and does not bring down the stature of their office or the standing of a government that depends on the votes of millions of people.
It is important to emphasise all these points. It is also important to emphasise that attempts at repression will simply create greater divide and greater animosity.
It is essential that all political parties, unless they engage in speech which violates any law of the land, be permitted to take part in the national discourse and be heard without being ridiculed or simply cut off. In the longer run, such attempts will only damage our democratic system. As it is, there has been a negative impact on public behaviour in terms of what is acceptable practice and what is not.
While there has been some attempt to correct themselves, individuals using various social media forums have gone to extraordinary lengths to lambast opponents or suggest that one group of individuals is somehow superior to another. Superiority can rarely be proven through words or claims. In the political sphere, it can only be proven through action and effort. Rather than abuse or promises which in real terms mean very little, we need to see developments on the ground and a willingness to meet the needs of people in the country through well-planned policy rather than by attempting to pull down others.
Of course, it is true we need to do away with wrongdoings of all kinds and to develop among public representatives and everyone else in positions of power greater integrity, greater responsibility when handling public money and more respect for the people who are instrumental in bringing them to office. These qualities are still lacking. In their absence, regardless of how vehemently we denounce others or launch personal attacks with open displays of intolerance forming a part of the picture, there will never be change. Almost all political parties have been guilty of such acts in the past. For the future, they must gain an understanding of quite what parliamentary behaviour means and also accept that political battles need to be fought within the boundaries set by rules in assemblies rather than over social media, traditional media or at public gatherings.
Pakistan’s democracy is continuing to evolve. There have along the road been hurdles and obstacles. It is up to the politicians who lead the process to develop ways to circumvent these and reach a target that can empower people and also help them achieve the goals they've laid out in their campaigns and in their manifestos. The focus should be on these factors. Certainly, nepotism, corruption and the misuse of money is an entrenched evil in our country. It must be dealt with lawfully while accepting that even criminals deserve a degree of human respect and must be spared deliberately derisive treatment.
The rules of humanity and the ability to treat all humans as persons who deserve fair play must override all else. When this does not happen, we create greater divide within society and politics and thereby damage the polity we live in as a whole.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.