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When all is said and done

May 10, 2013

PUNJAB goes to the polls tomorrow — if you believe what you have been seeing on your television screen for the past few weeks.

But for the handful of occasions when the leaderships of the PML-N and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have ventured into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or the occasional news item recounting yet another incident of violence in Karachi, this has not felt like a countrywide election by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course campaigning has been taking place all over Pakistan, notwithstanding the less than serene state of affairs outside the Punjabi heartland.

The corporate media has simply chosen neither to show footage of political activities in the peripheries nor engage in discussions about potential outcomes. It is as if the epic battle between the tiger and the bat (in Punjab) will determine the fate of all.

In terms of numbers it is true that the winner of Punjab is odds-on to be the biggest party in the National Assembly. But how is it that all of our seasoned TV pundits have conveniently forgotten that the PPP formed coalition governments in 1988, 1993 and 2008 without winning more than a handful of seats in the Punjabi heartland?

The PPP and its allies have historically won a majority of seats in the Seraiki belt, and this region too has fared little better than Sindh, Balochistan and KP in terms of election coverage, notwithstanding that it is part of Punjab as it is currently constituted.

So let me rephrase my opening statement: north and central Punjab go to the polls tomorrow.

Ethno-nationalists — both of the moderate and militant variety — will say ‘I told you so’. And they are right. There is no gainsaying that Pakistan is extremely divided and that none of our mainstream parties can meaningfully claim to represent a reasonably wide cross section of people in all regions of the country.

This in itself does not delegitimise the electoral method, but the cause is not helped by the fact that the peripheral regions are quite deliberately ignored in mainstream political discourse.

The media is primarily at fault because it chooses to focus on Punjab and the mudslinging between the Sharif brothers and Imran Khan in particular. Indeed media reporting is not even satisfactory in the Punjabi heartland insofar as there is little emphasis on policy matters that affect the subordinate classes. Yet mainstream partie s cannot — and should not — be absolved of the blame. The two parties that have been given an inordinate amount of airtime over the past few weeks continually insist on speaking for all Pakistanis thereby glossing over numerous social divides, especially class, ethnicity and gender.

Yes they dress themselves up as populists and claim to speak for the most oppressed, but their utterings and records suggest a commitment only to the elite and the upwardly mobile middle classes. One can only wince at the manner in which revolutionary poets have been co-opted and retrogressive ideologies dressed up in new guises.

Yet all of this — the media’s manipulation of reality, the mainstream parties’ grandiose and often dangerous rhetoric, and the deepening of social contradictions — is neither unexpected nor likely to change in the near future. In fact this is all but the subtext of a larger narrative of which we must not lose sight. When all is said and done, many ordinary Pakistanis will go to the ballot tomorrow and at least formally assert themselves as the ultimate fountainhead of power in this country.

Certainly there are fundamental problems with the incumbent electoral system, not least of all the fact that the poor and defenceless are ‘represented’ by the rich and powerful. Too many people will not cast their votes because they feel they exercise little or no control over their own lives, let alone bigger structures.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Balochistan — its ethnic Baloch regions at least — remains a rumbling volcano waiting to explode. While there has been constant questioning of the formal political process within Baloch society since 1947, developments over the past decade have arguably pushed the Baloch to the point of no return.

In principle elections could have been the beginning of a retreat from the precipice but in practice the men in khaki refuse to countenance any challenge to status quo.

How free and fair elections will be in large parts of KP and the country’s biggest city is another big question mark. Indeed the list of things that is problematic about elections could go on and on. But as I have already mentioned, it is imperative not to forget that there is a (small) silver lining.

Many of the serious structural problems we face in this country — particularly the ethnic divide — might not have become so serious if the powers-that-be had acceded to the basic right of the people to vote immediately following the inception of the state.

At the time it was simply inconceivable to West Pakistan’s civil and military overlords that power be handed over to a Bengali majority.

Since 1971 the oligarchy has continued to remain true to its mantra that it, rather than the people, is the final arbiter of power in this country. When elections have been held, all attempts have been made to procure an outcome that is in the ‘greater national interest’. It is no different this time around, but it is also true that the vice-like grip of the men in khaki is loosening, slowly but surely.

We have a long way to go, and tomorrow is only a small step in the right direction. There can be no guarantees about what follows. But there can no question that this is the only way forward, even if only so we can agree that Punjab is part, not all, of Pakistan.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.