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Politicians’ self-annihilation

Updated May 14, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

POLITICS consumes its own. And this self-cannibalism is hard to witness, though it dominates the national political scene at the moment.

On the one side, we have the government at the centre headed by the PTI, which is breathlessly outing the ‘chors’ and ‘dakoos’ on the other side of the aisle. They were and are corrupt and they didn’t just loot the country but also drove its economy into the ground, allege the tabdeeli wallahs.

The rhetoric is never-ending and by now most of us know it by heart.

On the other side is an equally angry opposition, which has its own equally popular narrative about a party propped up artificially and brought to power through an unfair election. Be it the few times Shahbaz Sharif made his way through a speech on the floor of the National Assembly, or the more articulate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari thundered (he now does that regularly), they never forget to mention a ‘selected’ prime minister and the unfair means through which he and his men (and a few women) came to power. Even for the others on their side, the government and all those within enjoy no legitimacy.

And so the parameters of the debate have been decided, and this is all we hear — in parliament, in talk shows every night and even in newspaper headlines. Social media carries the same discussion forward — only in a cruder, louder form.

In order to provide the people a choice, different political parties attack their rivals, their policies and more.

This perhaps in a way is what adversarial politics is all about. In order to provide the people a choice, different political parties attack their rivals, their policies and more.

Consider the debate in the US around election time or just next door in India. Not only do the attacks get harsher, they are vicious and downright personal. The BJP has dredged up the decades-old Bofors scandal to attack the Congress party while Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abandoned wife and his education (or the confusion around it) is a part of the discourse as well. Even Priyanka Gandhi’s choice of clothes has not been spared.

The personal attacks were part and parcel of the Pakistani election scene as well but, since then, politics has taken an uglier turn — if it’s even possible. For now, the government and the opposition are questioning the very legitimacy of the other.

Isn’t this what their narratives are all about? The PML-N and the PPP are not fit to govern because they are corrupt. The money-laundering stories — about the fake accounts allegedly used by Asif Zardari and by the Sharif family — are detailed and horrific.

The legal cases will take time and their results are hard to predict, but in the meantime, the details being leaked through the media have and will continue to make their impact. They will continue to convince those watching or reading that the accused are guilty. The damage has been done, as it was in the case of Nawaz Sharif when the Panama stories came out. To some extent, it is now irrelevant whether he is eventually convicted or not (after the appeal process is exhausted); many simply remember that he wasn’t able to effectively explain how the apartments were acquired.

The PTI faces a similar credibility crisis. The controversy over the elections and its continued discussion has more than tarnished the party’s image. So obvious was the manipulation of the election process that many now completely disregard the support base of the party.

It’s debatable how successful the party would have been in the election but, if you hear the opposition’s account, the PTI is just a usurper with no legitimacy or support whatsoever. And Imran Khan made so many compromises (such as accepting the electables and the corrupt into the party) that he now has nothing new to offer as he once promised. He is in power because the establishment wanted it and he is simply a puppet while the real decisions are being made elsewhere.

And in this heated war of the words in a polarised political scene where one side is taking down the other, no one realises the damage being done. The entire political process and all those within it are being discredited.

In our noisy parliament, politicians are either thieves, or puppets or lotas (now the technocrats are the hitmen of the international financial institutions). No one has been left untainted; there are no honourable ones among the politicians.

What options does this leave the voter with? Discredited individuals and a system that doesn’t honour the citizen’s choice. Why should the voter continue to exercise his or her choice?

The disillusionment will eventually harm the system. We have seen this happen in the past and what it does.

In a system such as ours, where the power balance already doesn’t favour the political class, the war of words will simply strengthen the perception that the former cannot govern and the establishment will gain legitimacy.

Our representatives are not oblivious to this. Recently, in a speech in parliament, the PML-N’s Shahid Khaqan Abbasi warned that if the members of the National Assembly didn’t do more than attack one another, other forces would take over. Last week, Sherry Rehman from the PPP also pointed out that politics was being made controversial.

But their sane words were lost in the cacophony of verbal attacks. For the game of politics has to be played, regardless of all else. Such is the nature of the beast — it consumes itself.

However, in all this, it is not just the politicians who need to introspect. Some of the blame has to be shared by the ‘media’.

In our haste to fight the good fight and pick the ‘right’ side, we too have become a party to this self-destructive process. And the price will have to be paid by us, as well as the political class, if this slide does not stop.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2019