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Discussion on elections at the Frontline Club


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AFTER Benazir Bhutto’s assassination over five years ago (how time flies!), the only political figure in Pakistan foreigners have heard of is Imran Khan. His fame is largely attributable to his cricketing prowess and his winning ways with the ladies in England’s upper class. Who wouldn’t envy his track record?But as a politician, people here in the UK are unclear what he stands for. I am often asked by English friends about his chances of coming to power, and thus far, I have replied “very remote”.

However, given the traction his Movement for Justice has been getting of late, I have started hedging my downbeat assessment.

This was one of the questions on the agenda of the discussion on the upcoming elections held at London’s famous Frontline Club recently. The club is the venue where Julian Assange stayed and held court for weeks before he sought refuge at the Norfolk estate of the founder, Vaughan Smith. Among the many well-known personalities who have spoken here was Benazir Bhutto. I was last there to hear Ahmed Rashid speak about his new book last year.

The club is dedicated to press freedom, and has hosted some 1200 events since it was founded in 2003. Apart from a smallish hall that seats around a hundred, it has a cosy members’ bar and an excellent restaurant open to the public. The running costs are met by charging tickets for talks, and from membership fees and the takings of the restaurant and bar.

So when I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on the Pakistani elections, I was delighted to accept. The other panellists were Wajid Shamsul Hasan, our High Commissioner in London; Umber Khairi of BBC’s Urdu service, and an old friend; and Pir Zubair Shah, the Pulitzer Prize winning Pakistani journalist. Moderating the proceedings was Paddy O’Connell of the BBC.

The audience was a mixture of desis and Brits, with several friends who had turned up to fly the flag for the home team. We kicked off by explaining to the audience who the major contenders were, and I could see eyes glazing over as we went through the list: PPP, ANP, PML-N, PTI, MQM, etc. As I named the leaders of these parties, I had some difficulty explaining how Altaf Hussain has run his party from London for 20 years.

The truth is that very few Brits — or foreigners of any kind — know or care very much about our elections. By and large, they see Pakistan as the source of most of their security problems, whether as a threat to their soldiers in Afghanistan, or as an incubator for many of the terrorist plots and attacks hatched by young British radicals of Pakistani origin.

Indeed, at one point the moderator asked for a show of hands to indicate how many had heard of Pakistan being referred to as ‘Denialistan’. This was in reference to the widely shared perception of a country that closes its eyes to the anti-Western sentiments that fester among a vast majority of Pakistanis. At the same time, Pakistan continues to beg for aid from the very countries at the receiving end of extremist violence exported from our shores.

Inevitably, the talk turned to drone attacks, and Pir Zubair Shah, who happens to be from South Waziristan, made the point that people living in the affected areas supported the US campaign. He was convinced that there was no other way to eliminate the Taliban who were holding local tribesmen hostage.

My discussion with the former chief secretary of KP province a couple of years ago reinforced this viewpoint: according to this top official of the provincial administration, the further away people were from the tribal areas, the more they fulminated against the drones. According to him, villagers whose lives had been made hell by the terrorists welcomed American drone attacks that were generally very precise.

Both the moderator and the audience were horrified at the level of violence unleashed against certain parties by the Taliban. We in Pakistan have become so accustomed to terrorist violence that we forget how unusual it is. For some 25 years, sundry ethnic, sectarian and religious groups have been tearing the country apart. Both military and civilian rulers have witnessed the weakening of the writ of the state as though they were rabbits frozen in the glare of onrushing car headlights.

One elderly lady remarked that listening to our description of the violence, it seemed that Pakistan was a failed or failing state. Instantly, the panel went into denial: we all repeated the familiar mantra that Pakistanis were very resilient, and somehow or other, we would overcome the terrorist threat.

But in my heart of hearts, I put this optimism down to wishful thinking: for far too long, the state has retreated before the extremist juggernaut. This refusal to take a stand stems from the mass confusion about the nature of the threat we face. In the West, there is a broad consensus that governments will fight Islamist terrorism with all the means at their disposal.

There is no such resolve in Pakistan. Here, politicians, generals, journalists and the public are all too often divided over how to face the jihadi peril. Many are taken in by the religious rhetoric used by the terrorists, not realising that this is a smokescreen for a naked power grab. Others secretly subscribe to the aims of the Taliban. People like Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif help to spread this confusion.

Our audience at the Frontline Club was under no such delusion. Most could not understand why the Pakistani state allowed such anarchy to prevail if it was not complicit. In my concluding remarks, I said that as a Pakistani, I had to hope that things would improve, but as a realist, I was very pessimistic.

Comments (29) Closed

Thoughtful May 06, 2013 10:45pm
As usual a very well written and thoughtful piece by Irfan Hussain. Pakistan's problems are not only its politicians, military, and feudal lords but its exceptionally ignorant masses. For some strange reasons, the Pakistanis refuse to learn. Nawaz Sharif is a well known corrupt former prime minister and Imran Khan is ignorant and power hungry who will do anything to mislead the general public. The problem is where should the Pakistanis turn? There is no honest and credible leadership in Pakistan. Bottom line as Irfan pointed out 'I was/am very pessimistic'.
Baber Khan May 07, 2013 06:15am
Yes, but it is high time some called a spade a spade. I am glad IK is doing exactly that!
Cynic May 06, 2013 08:39pm
"On March 15, Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, released a statement that categorically declared the CIA drone program a "violation of Pakistan's sovereignty." That statement followed three days of secret meetings with Pakistani officials, who told Emmerson that they had confirmed 400 civilian deaths in drone strikes since the program began in 2004." New America Foundation. Need more be said about this topic.
Feroz May 06, 2013 06:43am
Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
NASAH (USA) May 07, 2013 01:29am
Some serious Pakistanis think that once the Americans leave Afghanistan Talibans will melt in Fata land but the evidence is opposite -- Talibans are now making permanent fortresses in Pakistani cities.
Sanjay Saksena May 07, 2013 04:37am
What distinguishes Pakistan from other nations, including other Muslim nations, is the mainstreaming of Jihadist ideology. We are not talking about mullas in far flung caves; you only have to watch the TV channels to realise that ordinary, educated, city dwelling folk have been converted to the warped interpretation of Islam peddled by those who kill in the name of faith.
paknumber1 May 06, 2013 10:08pm
you forgot to mention that loas were written off and uncle sam gave large hand out after 9/11. That is what had fueled the economy. Not the geniuses of mushy and his city banker shaukat aziz. once the uncle sam got tired of double cross by the general..the proverbrial **** hit the pakistani economy fan!
paknumber1 May 06, 2013 10:11pm
We try everybody, why not give imran a chance? We haven't tried the taliban either, why not give them a chance? wait a minute, ik and taliban has the same ideology!
Sumant May 06, 2013 11:01pm
Excellent piece as usual Mr. Husain. Unfortunately the denialists are out in full force. Is reason dead or dormant in the face of militant murderers ? I suppose the election results will give the answer.
Aamir mumtaz May 06, 2013 11:21pm
This cannot be classed as a profound and revealing analysis. Repetition of same old negative comments
Muqtadar Quraishi May 06, 2013 05:20pm
Cannot help but agree. Irfan Saheb sits in an ivory tower.
Isadora May 06, 2013 08:09pm
Please don't say that about Mr. Khan. Still, I must admit I feel the same way here in the U.S. We have a government that just isn't doing the job and no one around to choose from next elections. Another far left person could damage the country further, someone on the right or far right might not know what to do either. The world has become so complicated. So we wait. Also with pessimism. I should add that what I just wrote, is, of course, only my opinion. But if you in Pakistan want to keep what freedom you have, look hard at your candidates views on the Taliban. Then think again of the freedom you have gained. The world has a stake in what you decide. America may be on the decline and that's just the way it goes. Look at history. Countries surface as a super power and then they go under. Pakistan should be on its way up. But for certain people it would be. Who among your candidates cares more for people and country than religion or politics - or both? Surely there must be someone.
Kausik May 06, 2013 07:25pm
i COMPLIMENT PAKISTAN IN HOLDING ELECTIONS in this extremely trying period with violence erupting constantly in Baluchistan,Karachi waziristan but the determination and commitment to Democracy is laudable whatever results may be.Hopefully in even violent men would turn to ballots instead of bullets.
Tao May 06, 2013 06:07pm
It is not Democracy that has put the country on a path to failure. It is the corrupt leadership you have had in place for all these years. With the right leadership, Pakistan could flourish. There are many I know personally who are holding back investment in Pakistani businesses because of the terrorism and corruption in Karachi. New and honest leadership is what the Country desperately needs. It could very well be the turning point for Pakistan.
Xhizar Zuzat May 06, 2013 06:13pm
really? an apologist for the Taliban will do well as leader? Also, he is delusional if he thinks he can clean up a 65+ year mess in 3 months or less. Please!
Ali May 06, 2013 03:24am
Yet another anti Imran piece.
Qamar May 06, 2013 03:56am
Electing Imran Khan might lead us out of the current mess we are in. It is just a hope because Imran Khan has yet to prove himself as a worthy statesman.Having tried all other political options and having gotten in increasingly bigger mess every time a new government came in, Imran Khan is the only last bet we can gamble on.
Habib Rahman May 06, 2013 02:57pm
Just five years ago (1999-2008), Pakistan was one of the fastest growing country in the 138 UN member states with 7% GDP growth, the highest in the history of Pakistan (Zaidi), low deficit of 4.3% of the GDP, low inflation of 6.6%fy 01-08 and FDI of 5.4B$ (Nauman) with stable economy of 62 rupees to a dollar and 16.4B$ in reserve in 2007 and got rid of IMF. Pakistan was was much praised by world financial institutions like IMF and WB for reforms to turn the economy around.Five years of democracy (2008-2013) pushed the country fifty years back and the next govt is expected to push it back further as economy is on the rope al ready.The second IMf loan of five billion dollars is in the pipe line, the third loan from MFI is under consideration and we have problems to pay the first IMF loan.Beg and borrow is the future along with load shedding which have crippled the textile industries which make up 40% of our export.Like its predecessor, the next govt may just want to complete its five years term doing nothing and leave the mess behind if lucky.
BRR May 06, 2013 03:59pm
The money Musharraf got by playing a double game, selling captured Pakistanis to CIA, fudging the books, bankrupting the country - you seem to be proud of that.
BRR May 06, 2013 04:02pm
Yes, pakistan and Imran Khan are made for each other, they are all willing to bury their head in the sand and wishing that the problem will go away, just like IK.
Raza May 06, 2013 03:56pm
People who know him are skeptical about his sincerity and honesty. But who cares about sincerity and honesty in Politics?
Razzaq May 06, 2013 02:30pm
The COAS have said clearly that this is OUR war. Imran still adamant that this is NOT OUR war. One can easily see the future scenario if Imran comes in to power.
suhail kausar May 06, 2013 03:09pm
While discussing the state of confusion regarding various aspects of terrorism and violence gripping Pakistani society, one factor seems to have been consistently ignored consciously or unconsciously by the analysts, which is, that all segments of the society including the intellectuals and journalists have been silent observers to the rise of religious extremism starting from 1953, when the target was Ahmadiyya community. The reason of indifference was probably the assumption that persecution of apparently small minority would not somehow impact the society at large. Although it may sound unfashionable to the pseudo-intellectuals, but they cannot ignore the religious history that there is a Supreme God, Who controls everything and does not allow perpetuation of cruelty against apparently indefensible, non-violent and peaceful community. Unless profound thoughts and pondering go into this reasoning and logic leading to correcting the course, there seems very little hope of any optimism.
hashmi May 06, 2013 03:19pm
A very well written article, in reality there is very little understanding of the problem we are facing in Pakistan neither the politicians nor the security agencies for that matter the journalists or the govt. it self. Therefore in this situation of double talk there is very hope of improvement.
Dr Chand Mohan Kaul May 07, 2013 11:01am
Mr Hussain, i have been reading your articles for a long time and I admire your objective analysis. The opium of religion which is being fed by politicans has already ruined Pakistan and if secular credentials as espoused by Mr Jinnah in his address to Pakistan's Constituent assembly are not heeded,Pakistan will become a failed state( God forbid)
Naseer May 07, 2013 01:05pm
Media power is too strong and unfortunately media is against Pervaiz Musharraf. His period was the best period I can remember during the last 40 years. No democratic government had the courage to allow independent media, only Musharraf did that. Sadly same media has forgotten that. People have forgotten what Nawaz Sharif party did to Supreme court. People have forgotten what Lal Masjid brigade was doing in Islamabad. People have forgotten that one day we have to die and we will be held accountable for what we do.
Farhan May 07, 2013 01:36pm
Mr Hussain - I wait for you to ditch your admiration of PPP and Bhutto-worship. After this election you will be singing praises to Imran Khan, as would others of your ilk.
SHAFIQ KHAN May 07, 2013 03:28pm
If you are aware of the ultimate judgement why are you so easy going about the oath of office Musharraf took when he took the oath of office of the COAS? A muslim need to be aware of Allah's presence on every moment of his/her life and not only on the day of judgement. Anyone who does not believe Allah being "hazer and nazer" lives a life which is devoid of Allah's grace.
naseem May 07, 2013 06:05pm
@BRR: You just said it.