My take on Pakistan’s elections: Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event

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In March this year, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan welcomed Aamir Liaquat Hussain into his political party. Aamir Liaquat will now represent NA-245 Karachi-I East-IV in the National Assembly. Naya Pakistan?

Below, something I wrote for The Print, published 31 July 2018 under the title Those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi shouldn’t be dismissed as bigots or sexist. I began writing it last week but was too caught up in my nephew’s wedding festivities to complete it earlier. But the break was helpful in gaining a better perspective. Some of my conversations with other wedding guests who are staunch PTI supporters (and there were many) inform this piece on why Pakistan should learn a lesson from what not to do from USA and India, and why dismissing those who vote for Imran Khan or Narendra Modi (or Trump) as bigots or sexist avoids the real issues – something Ayesha Siddiqa takes up in her excellent piece, in The Wire, Pakistan’s Middle Class Awaits a Miracle. The only point I’d add to her article is that Imran Khan’s support comes not just from the youth but also plenty of middle-aged aunties and uncles who gained political consciousness during the Musharraf ‘benign dictator’ years. My unedited Print piece below with a couple of videos from my Al Jazeera interviews ahead of elections, and a post-election podcast in Himal Southasian

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/477025080&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

Beena Sarwar

As dust from Pakistan’s general elections settles, this is a good time to look at the bigger picture and take stock of what has happened and what is likely to happen. It is also time to re-assert that democracy is messy business, that it is a process, not an event, and that controlled democracy, while not quite democracy, is better than dictatorship. In short, it’s complicated.

Despite the surface optics, this may well be the best of times for Pakistan. A time of despair, but also uplifting. The country is moving in the right direction politically, but the process is marred by interference from within and outside its borders.

Noteworthy within the larger picture is that Pakistan has recently completed an important cycle in the democratic political process: the peaceful transition of power from one elected government that completed its tenure, to the next — only the second time in the country’s history that this has happened.

The first time was when the government elected in 2008 (the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, PPP) handed over power to the next elected government in 2013 (Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, PML-N). Both governments completed their tenures despite noisy, distracting opposition often seen to have military support.

Now, the PML-N is handing over power to cricket legend Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“movement for justice”, PTI). Most political parties have rejected the election results but hopefully they will stay in the system. As Benazir Bhutto once said, “Boycott, and then what?”

There are many factors behind the election – or “selection” — results.

Firstly, there is Imran Khan’s charisma coupled with his emotive rhetoric that appeals to many who came to political consciousness during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship (1999-2008). They include youth as well as adults who initially supported the “liberal” dictator seen as symbolising a change in ideology from his predecessor Gen. Ziaul Haq’s oppressive rule (1977-1988).

Coupled with this is disillusionment with the old political parties – “desperation” as one PTI supporter put it. PTI’s slogan “Tabdeeli” (change) and its anti-corruption rhetoric speaks to the desire for change among such people.

These factors together could well have made PTI to be the election frontrunner in any case. But the process was not allowed to take place on its own. Various other elements pushed the PTI past the finish line further and faster than it may have reached on its own.

These include massive, unprecedented censorship in the run up to the 2018 elections that helped forge a narrative loaded in favour of PTI. Journalists, particularly in the broadcast media, were forced to not only virtually black out PPP and PML-N, but also mention their leadership only in a negative light. Of course, the dominant narrative does not determine how people vote – party loyalists will vote for their party regardless — but it certainly can influence the undecided voter or one who is on the fence.

Additionally, the judiciary was deployed to disqualify candidates belonging to these parties. Further, candidates (especially from PML-N) were threatened, coerced or blackmailed into giving up their party tickets at the eleventh hour and either withdrawing from the race or contesting as independents.

Perhaps the most significant factor behind the electoral results is the lack of electoral transparency and post-polling manipulations. Polling agents in dozens of stations were not allowed to be present for the vote counting. Many also complained of not being provided copies of Form 45, a document containing data about each candidate, names as well as how many votes they received, to be signed by Returning Officers and polling staff after the vote count.

Results for some constituencies came in an unprecedented 72 hours after polling ended, causing further suspicions about this most “rigg-orous” election process as the columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha sarcastically termed it.

Significantly, all the parties except for PTI have complained of these manipulations and irregularities. Imran Khan has magnanimously promised to look into all electoral complaints. Not a word about the censorship and other pre-poll manipulations.

But whatever the factors behind PTI’s electoral win, Pakistan must ride this wave. There are positives to focus on and strengthen, for example, the clear desire for change among the people – beyond the superficial “tabdeeli” promised by PTI. These aspirations have led to the emergence of some promising electoral candidates, including women and representatives of religious communities other than Muslim. Some have won provincial and national assembly seats against daunting odds. Others, even if like the lawyer Jibran Nasir in Karachi did not win, continue to challenge the dominant narrative, raising important questions about identity, inclusion and pluralism.

It is in fact such real changes taking place on the ground that are so threatening to the establishment and the politico-religious forces. Citizens are no longer satisfied with treading the path they are expected to follow because of where they were born and into which community. A groundswell of growing awareness about basic rights and human dignity is leading more and more individuals to reject the old order and to cross or aspire to cross socio-economic, class, caste and gender barriers.

This is the real “tabdeeli” that is taking place, regardless of Imran Khan’s rhetoric. Changes on the ground will continue to challenge the status quo in ways that only make news when there is violence.

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Indian PM Modi and US President Trump: elected leaders riding the waves of fear of change, much like Imran Khan. File photo.

As Pakistan braces for the next phase in its polity, there are lessons to be learnt from countries like India and USA where fear of change has led to the emergence of similar ‘strongman’ leadership.

Those who voted for Narendra Modi or Donald Trump are not all bigots, misogynists or racists. Many are just ordinary people desperate for “better days” and to make their country “great again”. This is not too dissimilar from Imran Khan’s supporters seeking “change”.

Change, like democracy, is a process, not an event. And so we continue to march along that road.

(ends)

Remembering Indira Gandhi’s Emergency

Jaspal SinghEmail from friend Jaspal Singh on June 25, 2017 that I meant to post earlier about a situation that feels all too familiar to Pakistanis. The long-running democratic political process in India – interrupted only by Indira Gandhi’s three-year long Emergency in 1975 is one of the reasons the country has done so much better than neighbouring Pakistan. Until the current scenario where, fuelled by signals from the top, mob lynchings and vigilante violence in the name of religion are rising. Some argue that the Emergency sowed those seeds. Read on. 

Reflections. June 25,2017

Forty two years ago today, a state of emergency was declared in India by Indira Gandhi  I remember that day very clearly. I had summer job in Vermont and lived in this idyllic village west of Burlington. The rolling hills were full of flowers. There was a small mountain stream in my backyard. I would wake up and go for a bath in the stream. Every where greenery and flowers. It was like being in paradise. I had no TV, no radio. So I was cut off from the world. A friend  who lived close by came and told me that she had heard on the radio that the prime minister of India had declared emergency and thousands of people had been arrested.
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Owning Mashal Khan: Pakistan’s road to redemption

MashalLike many, I feel shattered and heartbroken by the brutal murder of the university student Mashal Khan. In this op-ed published in The News, April 19, 2017, I try to contextualise the tragedy, share my observations about changes underway and suggest a way forward. Copied below with additional links and visuals. Please also sign and share this online petition: Pakistan Against Extremism: Minimum Common Agenda. Continue reading

The importance of representation: “Put us in the news!”

Morse School students use ribbons to express their support for immigrant families.

I wrote this piece after a discussion with fourth and fifth graders at a public school in Cambridge MA; slightly different versions published in the Cambridge Chronicle and The News on Sunday. The students’ desire to be “in the news” reflects what I believe is one of journalism’s key roles – to ensure that the voices of the under-represented get heard. The selfie-culture sweeping the world isn’t just about narcissism. It speaks to the human need to be affirmed and remembered. I was here. See me. Hear me. 

PERSONAL POLITICAL

By Beena Sarwar

“Did you see our ribbons? They are for immigrant families,” says Emma, one of half a dozen 9 and 10-year olds I’m talking to about journalism on a bitterly cold weekend in March.

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Harsh Mander and his vision of “a world of new solidarity”

My column in Himal Southasian, published 10 June 2016 –  Harsh Mander on why we should raise our voice against injustice

By Beena Sarwar

Photo : Beena Sarwar

Harsh Mander: Committed, consistent and soft-spoken. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Cross-border solidarity isn’t exactly a new idea. The rallying cry, “Proletarians of all countries, unite!…” that emerged in 1848 from The Communist Manifesto has resounded around the globe in many forms since it was first articulated.

Meeting Harsh Mander, one of India’s foremost activist-intellectuals and a courageous former civil servant, again revived the idea for me, but this time, beyond workers. I had first met the soft-spoken Mander in Karachi, when I worked for Geo TV. He had been part of a small delegation from India visiting Pakistan in early 2004, a visit aimed at improving understanding between India and Pakistan, organised by the social-cultural group Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD). Continue reading

A year after Peshawar APS massacre; Islamophobia and yes, Humanity Trumps All

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Rev. Joe Robinson of the Christ Church of Cambridge addressing the gathering in solidarity with Peshawar APS victims, and Muslims. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Last Sunday as we geared up to commemorate the Peshawar APS massacre of Dec 16, 2014, when Taliban killed 144 schoolchildren, a bomb blast in Shia-majority Parachinar at the lunda bazar (second-hand market) killed over 22 people, most of them poor. We talked about that at our gathering that afternoon at Harvard Square where Reverend Joe Robinson and members of the Christ Church in Cambridge joined us in solidarity, as did many others from the local Pakistani and Indian communities. Rabbi Neal Gold of Temple Shir Tikvah couldn’t join us but we read out his letter of support and solidarity to the Islamic Center of Boston.

Many friends joined us from another rally in Providence, R.I., an hour away, attended by some 3-400 people of all faiths, including Muslim, Jewish, Christian and agnostics.

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote for Scroll.in on the issue: #NeverForget: A year after Peshawar school attack, voices rise in solidarity around the world

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