By Saba Ijaz
KEEPING alive the tradition of holding a number of sessions on politics, the ILF hosted the session ‘Full of Sound and Fury: Elections in Pakistan’ on the first day. Moderated by Rashed Rehman, the panel included Anatol Lieven, the Orwell Prize-winning journalist and author of Pakistan: A Hard Country, the politician Syeda Abida Hussain, and Sahar Shafqat, an Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, USA.
Hussain opened the talk by defining politics in terms of a whole lot of “heartaches, handshakes and headaches.” She reviewed the political culture of the country during the period of elections and maintained that the contact of candidates with voters along with issues of rivalries and clan loyalties makes the process of elections a demanding exercise in Pakistan. On the issue of minorities’ electoral rights, she was of the view that the provision of separate electorate has not proved fruitful for them. Sadly, the trend to drag religion into politics is on rise.
Lieven stated that the military has propagated the notion of a “magical key” to all problems that Pakistan faces in today’s world, and hence, the slogans of ending corruption or load-shedding of electricity in 90 days have become extremely popular. The real issue, according to him, is to have a smooth electoral process without any obstacles. He added that Pakistan has to be a pluralist democracy in order to safeguard the rights of minorities. Shafqat, too, focused on the need for improving elections. She pinned her hopes on the rise of the middle class which can play a decisive role in elections. She categorically stated that Pakistan cannot afford to derail the electoral process which is guaranteed to keep extra-constitutional powers at bay.
‘News, Views, and Sensationalism’, too, was moderated by Rehman. The panel included political and economic analyst Farhan Bokhari, TV personality Nasim Zehra, and Robin Pagnamenta, the South Asia bureau chief for The Times. Zehra confessed her love for writing but with the evolution of electronic and social media, she has found a medium with a wider influence. She called this evolution a “civilisational shift of paradigm”. She felt that nowadays people have an appetite for more serious journalism, which places the responsibility of providing credible news on print and electronic media.
When asked about categorising Pakistan in the old or new world order, her reply was that the only order we are in is disorder. Pagnamenta mentioned that print journalism is undergoing a painful transition with the advent of social media. He shared his experience about the changing patterns of print journalism in Europe. Bokhari, on the other hand, expressed his viewpoint that the press and nation rise and fall together. He also stated that though corporate interests manipulate the values of journalism, the quality of information and analysis cannot be compromised.
The day ended with the session ‘Politics: The Art of the Possible and Sometimes the Impossible’. Moderated by Bokhari, the panel included Hussain, and Ikram Sehgal, a leading defence analyst. Hussain claimed that one of the biggest challenges of a politician is to convince the public about their integrity and capacity to perform. She suggested that civil servants, instead of members of the judiciary, should be assigned the task of conducting electoral process in order to have fair elections in the country. Sehgal pointed out the flaws in the judicial system wherein courts interpret the law and ignore its spirit. On the issue of the media-politics nexus, he declared that we have a façade of free media, whereas the media favours those with resources.
The last day of the ILF started off with the session ‘Afghanistan: North-Western Exposure’. Moderated by Zehra, the panel included Lieven, Riaz Mohammad Khan, diplomat and author of Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal, and Zahid Hussain.
Zehra opened the session with the remarks that the USA and Pakistan co-authored a script for Afghanistan in the 1980s and termed it a “game changer”. But this game changer has only brought militancy, terrorism and Islamisation to Pakistan. Hussain was of the view that the idea of Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban has been exaggerated. Pakistan can exert pressure on Taliban to a certain extent but cannot coerce them to make decisions. He remarked that China is also interested in the reconciliation process, despite its reluctance to interfere in the affairs of other countries. Khan opined that this conflict is hurting Pakistan and Afghanistan more than any other country in the world, and that Pakistan must deal with Afghanistan as a separate state according to the norms of international relations. Having said that, he made it clear that Pakistan cannot take responsibility for whatever is happening in Afghanistan. Lieven concluded the discussion stating that there is no chance for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan again. However, he was concerned that Taliban have the capacity to keep the insurgency alive.