Twisted narrative

19 Sep 2014


The writer is a political analyst based in Peshawar.
The writer is a political analyst based in Peshawar.

THE aftermath of the sit-ins over the past few weeks in Islamabad has seen a manipulation of two narratives by almost all the parties concerned.

One of these is the narrative of system change and structural reform, that has two aspects. The first is society’s parochial religiosity, which began at independence and reached its peak in Gen Zia’s era. This period saw large-scale social homogenisation, at the expense of pluralist values. The seeds of sectarian and extremist discourse were sown. Several laws were promulgated that saw the marginalisation of women, and people belonging to various religious denominations.

Through a judicious construction of media and education systems, ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender and racial heterogeneity was strangulated to construct an artificially homogenous society. A natural by-product was the casting of the ‘other’ as the enemy.

The second aspect pertains to policymaking and statehood. The statehood paradigm took its cue from imagined or real threats to territorial security. Instead of exploring indigenous resources and developing tools for large-scale production, the junta constructed an economic paradigm, in which foreign policy was tailored to enhance war capacity and get grants, aid and loans to run the wheels of the economy.

With what magic wand do the sit-in leaders plan to bring change?

The objectives of this policy were termed ‘national interests’. Only a few individuals and institutions were allowed to define ‘national interests’. All other political and civil society forums which differed were dubbed ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’, an approach that divided Pakistan along the lines of the masses and those perceived as elitist groups. This also led to Fata’s marginalisation and of certain ethnic groups elsewhere in the country. Pakistan drifted towards becoming a security state instead of the intended welfare state.

The second narrative being manipulated in the current situation is the discourse on political reforms. One aspect pertains to reforms in electoral laws so that genuine participation and representation of the people, essential features of a democratic polity, can be ensured.

The second aspect is an understanding of the federalist nature of the Pakistani state. This is a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural country. If poll reforms, including restructuring of the Election Commission, are carried out without including input from Fata, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the social contract between the state and citizens would remain in perilous.

The protest leaders claim that as the 2013 elections were rigged in favour of the PML-N, the prime minister must resign and dissolve the assemblies so that fresh elections can be held.

It is interesting how the narratives of system change, and structural and political reform have been manipulated to capture the imagination of the masses. Few questions have been raised on the validity of the notion that a comprehensive system change can take place with the resignation of the prime minister, dissolution of the assemblies and announcement of fresh elections.

How can the leaders of the sit-ins bring about a shift in foreign and economic policies, and a parochial mindset? How and what change can they bring about in Fata and the state security policy if they come to power after fresh elections? What magic wand do they have to end the marginalisation of the Baloch, the people living under the draconian FCR in Fata, the Pakhtuns and the Sindhis to include them in the social contract? How and what will they do to shift the media discourse and educational narrative towards a ‘social welfare state’?

They insist on a top-down approach to end all ills. The issues of marginalisation, distribution of resources, access to justice and institutionalisation of governance need both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

While efficient social services delivery, enactment of a social security framework, and changing state discourse from ‘territorial security’ to ‘human security’ require clear goals and commitment by politicians, social transformation can only be brought about after a long struggle by political workers, academia, media and civil society actors who have clarity of thought on these issues. The latter part of the struggle can only succeed by adopting a bottom-up approach and by bringing about incremental behavioural changes.

Manipulating narratives and the inclination to use supra-constitutional means could further exacerbate Pakistan’s problems. A short cut to power might lead to depoliticisation of people instead of bringing about more political awareness. We can already observe this tendency towards increasingly irrational behaviour in mainstream media and social media. Tarnishing the image of political opponents and mud-slinging for short-term gains will only lead to more polarisation.

The writer is a political analyst based in Peshawar.

Twitter: @khadimhussain4

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2014