Unprecedented or more of the same?

November 13, 2022

History is replete with examples of extreme political polarisation where political opponents chose demonising each other over reasoned debate

Unprecedented or more of the same?


ritics allege that the politics of polarisation, marked by elements of hate and intolerance, has currently reached unprecedented heights. The main culprit, they find, is Imran Khan’s rhetoric. They hold that the tone and content of his political discourse have plunged to a level not witnessed before. This, it is said, has resulted in an uncertain, intolerant and hateful political environment. Bitter verbal clashes between the government and opposition representatives have increasingly assumed the form of personal attacks — even vilification and character assassination have become a norm, they say. They say Khan uses inappropriate words and slangs that are below the prestige of members of the parliament. His opponents, while countering his abrasive language and abusive words, do not lag behind. Many of them respond in the same manner. The government and the opposition are no longer willing to engage in a reasoned debate. Instead, they prefer to demonise each other. Extreme polarisation and no engagement are the ultimate outcomes.

Following their leaders, party workers and supporters also engage in similar duels. They not only abuse each other but also attempt at maligning, slandering and defaming leaders of their opponents. The polarisation in the general population has reached such a degree that it is said even marriages and family and personal relationships are being decided on the basis of political affiliation — e.g., Khan’s supporters can no longer marry the supporters of his opponents and vice versa.

The commentators say that the political conduct may not have been polite in the past but what is being evidenced now is unprecedented due to the following developments: 1) the language of politics has taken a form and tone that is excessively harsh; 2) politicians are trying to demonise opponents rather than articulating their own political takes; 3) the political middle ground is being steadily eliminated; and 4) the ethics of war has been injected into politics by an attitude that sees opponents as enemies to be eliminated rather than competed with.

This assessment merits a thorough investigation. Is this polarisation really unprecedented in the country’s history?

To answer this question, a historical recount of political polarisation in Pakistan is needed. The country’s history is replete with instances of political polarisation; however, I will cite only four of those. Almost every example has seemed unprecedented.

Following their leaders, party workers and the supporters also engage in a similar duel. They not only abuse each other but also attempt at maligning, slandering and defaming leaders of their opponents.

To begin with, political polarisation among Muslim leaders and their supporters is not new. It was prevalent even in the pre-partition India (before the creation of Pakistan), where some of his opponents used to label or dub Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with titles like ‘Kafir-i-Azam’, and Pakistan with titles like ‘Palidistan’ and ‘Kafiristan’. Instead of criticising Jinnah’s ideology or policies or engaging with him in a reasoned debate, they used to issue decrees against him. They used to spread false information and present irrational arguments to prove that Jinnah was a ‘non-believer’ (non-Muslim) and a ‘British agent’. They used to run campaigns to vilify, malign and demonise Jinnah and make personal attacks against him.

Fatima Jinnah, also known as Madr-i-Millat (the mother of the nation), met a similar treatment from her opponents when she decided to contest the presidential election of 1965 against Gen Ayub Khan, the incumbent president. She was labelled as a traitor and an Indian agent. She was accused of working in tandem with the Indian spy agency RAW (the Research and Analysis Wing) to break up Pakistan — e.g., she was alleged to have offered support to the movement for Greater Pakhtunistan, which was allegedly funded and supported by India. Using the pretext, she was banned from addressing the nation on national TV and radio. The allegations levelled against her were never proved. In my humble opinion, her opponents were afraid of a defeat at her hands; so, stern efforts were made to demonise her through personal attacks.

Malicious campaigns and demonising drives were not limited to the Baba-i-Qaum and the Madr-i-Millat. These extended to all political opponents, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Political polarisation between Bengalis and non-Bengalis was reflected in the 1970 general elections. East Pakistanis voted for the Awami League (AL) while the West Pakistanis voted for political parties based in the Western Wing.

The 1990s, too, mark an era of (extreme) political polarisation, where four elected governments were sent packing without completing their terms. Earlier the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and later, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), both led by Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, drew Benazir Bhutto into politically motivated controversies. She was accused of being a ‘foreign agent’ — sometimes an American and, at other times, an Indian agent. Edited photos of her were thrown from helicopters to demonise her and to oust her from the political arena.

The current political polarisation is by no means unprecedented. Pakistan’s history is replete with examples of extreme political polarisation where political leaders attempted to demonise one another. They did not engage with the opponents in a reasoned debate to secure a political middle ground. It is unfair therefore to accuse Imran Khan of unprecedented political misconduct; on the other hand, he cannot be given a clean chit either. He is just as much a part of the current mess as his opponents.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a RASTA fellow at PIDE, Islamabad, and a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at mazharabbasgondal87@gmail.com.  He tweets at @MazharGondal87

Unprecedented or more of the same?