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September 24, 2017

Radicalising the mainstream


September 24, 2017

The more you contemplate last Sunday’s Lahore by-election, the more you worry about Pakistan’s social drift. On the surface, it was all about politics. In fact, the electoral contest was built up as some kind of an existential tussle between the parties of the disqualified ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his abrasive antagonist Imran Khan.

But you could ignore the lead players and look at the sinister plot that the NA-120 by-poll has woven in the roles enacted by the supposedly bit players. In some ways, politics has been defeated by unruly social forces.

Yet, we do not know if alarm bells are ringing in the minds of those who seek to preside over our destiny and define our path to glory as a modern country. But perhaps it is the natural outcome of how our national security objectives have been pursued.

Now, I am primarily referring to the impressive showing of two brand new religious political parties or groupings. There is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) a coalition of a number of Islamic factions. It supported an independent candidate. The other is the Milli Muslim League, the political incarnation of Hafiz Saeed’s JuD.

As you can guess, the TLP represents the Barelvi school of thought and its inspiration is Mumtaz Qadri, the executed murderer of the then governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer. Hence, it has campaigned for strengthening the blasphemy laws.

That these two parties polled 11 percent of the votes cast in the by-poll is a reality that no one had actually foretold – though independent critics are forever concerned about the resistible rise of religious extremism and the spread of intolerant, obscurantist elements and ideas among the people. Another measure of how this may change the political rules of the game is that mosques were used as a venue for political activity.

If one were to predict a large turnout for a religious party, the JI would naturally be seen as one beneficiary of this trend. But it is the routing out of the Jamaat that appears to be more significant than the triumph of the new religious groupings. Writer Mohammad Hanif has done a great piece for BBC Urdu to bid farewell to the Jamaat that had dominated its constituency for around half-a-century.

For God’s sake, how would you imagine just 592 votes for the candidate of arguably the best organised political party in the country – and that too in its own centre of power – when the two candidates of the TLP and MML bagged about 13,000 votes? The new kids on the block are taking over the religious district.

What does this mean? There have been numerous analyses of the Lahore by-election during this week. The focus has mainly rested on the two principal candidates and the political implications of the results in the context of the pressures being mounted on the Sharif family. Many other aspects have been covered, including the rise of the new religious parties.

Yet, I believe that the Lahore by-election has delivered a number of hidden messages that need to be properly decoded and investigated. I have concentrated so far on how dark passions that have roots in religious militancy and fanaticism are being invested in mainstream politics at the cost of traditional religious parties.

But the other side of this coin is horrendous from a specific point of view. Like the Jamaat, the PPP has made a poor showing. This would show that while retrogressive passions are visibly rising, the party that was for long associated with enlightened populist policies is also in retreat, if the Lahore by-election is taken as a reflection of the popular mood in the present situation.

However, the PPP that we have is not a party of any specific ideological leanings. This is what Asif Ali Zardari’s stewardship has done to the only worthwhile legacy in Pakistan’s political history. As an aside, we may take note of the allegations made by former president Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf on Thursday that Asif Zardari was the “murderer” of Benazir Bhutto and her brother Murtaza.

This has stirred controversies that were never out of circulation and prompted fond memories of Benazir, who was assassinated nearly 10 years ago. Here is another reminder of the tragedies that Pakistan has had to suffer and the role that unseen forces may have played to undermine our potential as a civilised and democratic society.

While Musharraf’s belated and inscrutable ‘revelation’ has surely distracted attention from what is happening on the centre-stage, there is little scope for the PPP’s resurgence in an electoral context. Hence, the party candidate’s poor showing in the Lahore by-election is not such a big surprise. But the PPP’s retreat has thrown the plight of the liberals in sharp relief against the backdrop that projects the faces of Hafiz Saeed and Mumtaz Qadri.

There is, then, no space in Pakistan’s politics for a liberal and progressive movement in spite of the slogans that are raised in, say, KP and Balochistan by some old guards. Now, what we see as liberal values are the lifeblood of a democratic dispensation. So what is the future of democracy in Pakistan when the political territory is already under partial occupation?

We have another ominous warning in the results of the Lahore by-election in the context of the evolution of a representative democratic system. An election that had generated so much hype and partisan frenzy across the country did not see any significant participation by the youth. Both the leading candidates were women and the women voters of the constituency were obviously not too excited about it.

Is there an intimation here of the depoliticisation of Pakistani society at some level? What we may call the lunatic fringe is very much in a state of agitation and its domain is expanding. Likewise, the committed and passionate supporters of the two parties had to be out there – if only for the benefit of television cameras. But what about the ordinary citizens? When the turnout was just less than 40 percent, so many potential voters obviously had other engagements on their day off.

When we speak about the rise of the new religious groups, we must also remain mindful of the proximity of the PML-N and the PTI to these groups in an ideological sense. It was said that the votes cast for the TLP and MMI candidates had reduced the winning margin of Kulsoom Nawaz. And Imran Khan can distort our history by invoking that slogan: “Pakistan ka mutlab kia…”.

This shows that no one in the power game knows what Pakistan actually means.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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