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March 10, 2017

Politics of personality, not principle


March 10, 2017

There is a myth in Pakistan – usually pushed by the political parties themselves – that our national politics is hopelessly divided. All the dharnas, parliamentary boycotts and fights among political leaders reinforce this impression.

But if we look a bit closer, most of these arguments are about character, not policy. Imran Khan keeps taking to the streets because he believes Nawaz Sharif is hopelessly corrupt, not because the agenda of the PTI and the PML-N differs in any significant way. For a country whose politicians are always at each other’s throats, we have managed to pass a remarkable number of unanimous constitutional amendments and laws in the last few years. The divisions that exist are mostly personal.

The lack of dissent is most pronounced in the foreign policy and security realm, where all the political parties either share or have come to terms with the idea that all decisions should be made by the army. The parties themselves have accepted that they are the public faces of the decision – the salesmen who show there is a vaunted consensus for a policy that has already been set.

Consider the PPP – which has carved out an image of itself as the party which actually believes in human rights and civilian supremacy. Its five years in power were marked by spinelessness and cave-ins. Any time the PPP took a hesitant, dissenting step, it immediately and apologetically walked back. When the interior ministry issued a notification to put the ISI under civilian oversight, the PPP immediately took back the notification and disavowed having anything to do with it. On issue after issue, the PPP government seemed to have decided that it was more important to serve its five years rather than do anything to disrupt the status quo in that time.

The charade of resistance has continued with the PPP in opposition. It was the only party to object to extending the tenure of military courts for another two years. It didn’t take long to show just how superficial those objections were. At its much-vaunted, sparsely-attended all-parties conference – a misnomer since barely any parties showed up – the PPP said it wanted the courts to be extended for only a year rather than two and that the types of cases they heard to be restricted. The one-year restriction proposed by the PPP means the military courts would lapse just before the next general elections. But even that doesn’t mean much since there is no party that is willing to kill the practice.

Now, we are all set for yet another unanimous constitutional amendment. And the militancy problem – which is all but impossible to completely kill off in the short term – is going to be brought up to ensure that military courts become a permanent feature. Emergency measures, usually pushed through without much debate, have a nasty habit of sticking around. The anti-terrorism courts were meant as a stopgap measure to lessen the burden on regular courts and slake the public thirst for justice in high-profile terrorism cases. Now, 20 years later, they have become an immovable object that everyone accepts, even though the quick justice they provide means a significant number of their verdicts are later overturned on appeal.

With military courts, the right to appeal doesn’t exist either. A constitutional amendment may be passed to normalise them, but military courts are not normal. Their trials are conducted in secret, they have lower standards of evidence and the verdicts are announced at the army’s pleasure. There is no evidence that they are a deterrent to militancy. They serve two functions: to bring the army into the judicial process and satisfy the public that we are taking action against militants.

The other great security non-debate of the week was over a cricket match. It, too, showed just how personality-based our national politics has become. It is possible to hold two different thoughts at the same time: that hosting the Pakistan Super League final in Lahore was unwise with the militant threat undiminished and – once the decision was made to go ahead with the match – to enjoy it as a rare treat for our cricket-starved fans.

But the PTI as a party – and specifically its leader – are not believers in nuance. Their entire existence is justified not by believing in anything but by trying to bring down whoever is in power so that Imran can inherit the throne he feels is rightfully his. For him, the PSL final was a PR coup for the government and so it must be opposed completely. He felt that this also extended to the foreign players who attended. He belittled them as second-rate and even threw in a gratuitous racist reference to Africa for good measure. The politics of personality is so all-consuming for Imran that he couldn’t resist bringing in cricketers whose only crime is not to reach the exalted standards that the PTI chief believes is a qualification for being allowed to play cricket in Pakistan.

We are a country that treats politics as a spectacle, an entertainment sport. It’s not just our politicians either. The only difference between political talk shows and drama serials is that the actors in the serials have better teeth. The media is mostly concerned with who is winning and losing. One day Imran has the advantage; the next day Nawaz has played a master stroke. The effect it has is a narcotic one.

We are kept so busy and obsessed with politics as personality that we forget where the real decisions are being made. When form trumps substance, consensus becomes king. If all the political parties agree on something then surely it can’t be all that bad. Voices of dissent don’t need to be rebutted when they can be laughed off for being outside the mainstream.

And now, we can gear up for the biggest distraction of them all: the dharna. Imran Khan is threatening to take to the streets again. This serves two purposes, both of which reflect the lack of substance in our national politics. With the Supreme Court bench considering its verdict in the Panama Papers case, a demonstration of street power from Imran surely can’t hurt his chances. And the Election Commission of Pakistan can see the popularity of the PTI chief at a time when it is hearing the petition into his disqualification.

Yes, Imran Khan now wants to hold a dharna against the ECP. If you are wondering why he would do that, just remember that the target of his dharna is never important. The point is to keep Imran Khan at the front and centre, to showcase his personality and to make the case that he should be our next leader. The Imran dharna, which is now a permanent feature of the political landscape, is the perfect distillation of everything that is wrong with our politics today.


The writer is a journalist based in Karachi.

Email: [email protected]


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