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Need for a campaign code

May 12, 2018


WITH the assassination attempt on Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, the nightmare of a potentially violent election campaign has reappeared and underlined the urgent need for all contending political parties to agree on a list of dos and don’ts.

Gratefully, the usually calm, soft-spoken and markedly educated and reasonable politician, whose acquaintance I made in London in the 1990s when he visited the BBC where I worked as an editor, escaped death; however, he still received a bullet injury that will ground him for some time.

Belonging to a conservative political family with right-wing leanings, his mother and grandfather were known public figures in their own right. Following his political career mostly from a distance, I have never heard him utter an impolite word, act in an uncivil manner or lose his composure.

If a person whose family’s religious conservatism is a public fact is not spared the wrath of a fanatic who believed or was led to believe that Mr Iqbal had done something to disrespect his own faith, it would be nightmarish to imagine what could befall a politician with less of a religious profile.

If there is one thing that we seem to be utterly committed to, it is to never learn from history — our own history in particular.

But the attack on the minister did not come out of the blue as a concerted campaign has been going on since the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s protest at Faizabad in the federal capital. Although there is considerable speculation about the actual instigators of that sit-in, little concrete evidence has emerged — when does it ever in such cases?

One major political party also chose to exploit the issue and continued to do so at both the constituency and national level, ignoring the counsel of several commentators that this was akin to playing with dynamite. You can start this fire but when it gets raging you cannot extinguish its flames.

If there is one thing that we seem to be utterly committed to, it is to never learn from history. And our own recent history in particular. Whatever the justification, the policy of nurturing religious militancy has cost us dearly. The images of our brave martyrs, uniformed or otherwise, and their loved ones are a slap-in-the-face reminder if one was indeed needed.

Ergo, it was very gratifying to see PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari visiting Ahsan Iqbal in hospital and later calling for unity in the fight against extremism and intolerance. Yet it remains a forlorn hope that all political parties will put their heads together and agree on clearly defined no-go areas for the campaign.

Despite the crying need for such a code, its realisation remains a forlorn hope just because similar appeals to refrain from nauseating public displays of misogyny and contemptuous attacks on women have fallen on deaf ears. The culprits are not confined to one political party alone, even though the governing PML-N must shoulder a major share of the blame.

The last election campaign saw the PPP, ANP and MQM conducting their campaigns under the threat of violence from the now considerably depleted Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Whether the actual election result, for at least the first two, reflected this more than their performance in office did remains open to question.

Once the term of the current parliament ends and a caretaker setup replaces the incumbent government, electioneering will likely shift several gears particularly after Ramazan. Inevitably in the campaign, heat will be generated to match the searing and often suffocating weather.

All contestants must know that while stoking divisive flames, religious, sectarian or ethnic, may well bring them gains, the temporary advantage of following such a path will lead to hellish consequences.

There can be no issues if various political forces form alliances or even merge with each other in order to enhance their prospects in the elections. But whether such moves are voluntary or the result of nudging by forces variously termed as political engineers or aliens or whatever, the campaign cannot be inflammatory.

Ask the man or woman on the street and you will hear of multiple issues that affect their lives from not having enough food to put on the table to a decrepit state education system that has failed to deliver the least to the most. And the less said about healthcare the better.

Intolerance and extremism are such existential threats that will obliterate any hope of a Pakistan of our dreams where the system may not be entirely egalitarian and yet at least is able to meet the basic, the very fundamental needs of the teeming millions.

What I am trying to say is that the campaign can address genuine, legitimate concerns of the voting public rather than red herrings. Also, there can be no doubt that national aspirations are best served by an accountable (via elections) civilian authority.

However, the concept of civilian supremacy loses much of its meaning when the civilian politician comes to power, calls for it and then happily colludes with forces arrayed against it once in opposition. Principles, if they are dear in reality, must be adhered to at all times.

Let everyone follow the law of the land and uphold constitutional provisions at all times instead of only when it is convenient. Regardless of the machinations of other forces, if all political entities in the electoral fray agree to this ahead of the elections, it would be a dream come true.

Corruption, doubtlessly, is a national malaise and deeply rooted. It can be eliminated only when a mechanism is agreed on in order to root it out fairly, transparently and indiscriminately. If not, those applauding ‘anti-corruption’ measures today, despite their own frailties in the area, will be lamenting them tomorrow.

Given the current political environment, I am aware, what I am calling for is a big ask. But then if you even lose the ability to dream of your ideal Pakistan, what else is there left to do?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2018