THE coronavirus pandemic has revealed that most populist leaders — from the US and UK to Pakistan — lack the vision and ability to lead their nations from the front in this time of crisis, which is testing societies, institutions and systems alike. So far, the populists have been largely engaged in the usual illusionary rhetoric, and are deficient when it comes to making decisions so urgently needed to build a comprehensive response to the pandemic.
The US and UK have functional democracies that can somehow put their populist leaders back on track to handle the crisis. But in countries like Pakistan, where democratic governance and the rule of law are still a work in progress, civilian governments remain under immense pressure to perform or lose the balance of power.
The power contenders are largely concerned with winning the trust and confidence of the people, which they believe is mandatory in order to serve their interests. Though the Constitution comprehensively defines the relationship between state and society, power stakeholders tend to find other means to extract legitimacy from the masses. For instance, a sense of growing insecurity among the people as well as the role of religion in the times of crisis could be two main sources to win people’s trust. The civilian government can provide a sense of security only through its policies and actions, but religious circles largely suspect them and tend to deal with the situation with caution and at times in different ways.
Faith is also the weakest link of many state institutions, but few have developed better capabilities to deal with religious actors, who are now testing the nerve of the government in this crisis. The pandemic has once again exposed the inability of the state to deal with simple religious issues and guide the people with consensual, state-led rulings instead of leaving matters to religious decrees of disparate shades.
In India and Pakistan, the pandemic has exposed communal and sectarian fault lines.
It has been medically established that gatherings of all sorts are responsible for spreading Covid-19. These gatherings could be linked to religious festivity or prayers, mass migration, travel, or relief distribution efforts among communities affected by extended lockdowns. In Pakistan, officials and experts are in agreement that the ongoing lockdown has not been as successful as hoped mainly because of religious gatherings. The continuing Friday congregations, Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ) preachers, and Pakistani Shia pilgrims returning from Iran are considered to be the main sources of the spread of Covid-19.
Many other countries, both Muslim majority-states and non-Muslim states, are facing the same challenge. These gatherings complicate the situation further because of certain religious rituals that require the sharing of meals and water and other activities in close quarters. The TJ congregations in Malaysia, Pakistan and India, for instance, contributed to increasing the transmission of the virus in almost similar ways. About half of Malaysia’s Covid-19 infections have been directly linked to the TJ’s congregation held in Kuala Lumpur from Feb 27 to March 2. A similar congregation in Delhi aided the spread of the virus in India. In Pakistan, hundreds of cases have been linked with the congregation held in March in Raiwind. The TJ gatherings in Malaysia and Pakistan contributed to Covid-19’s spread in other countries too, including the Philippines, Kuwait, Thailand, Indonesia and Tunisia.
In India and Pakistan, the pandemic has also exposed communal and sectarian fault lines. Following media reports of the presence of suspected cases of Covid-19 in the TJ’s Delhi congregation, radical Hindu groups linked the pandemic to Indian Muslims. This is an unfortunate situation for this marginalised community, who are already facing immense discrimination in the world’s largest democracy.
Meanwhile, unlike the communal divide in India, Pakistan faces the challenge of the sectarian divide. Pakistani Shia pilgrims returning from Iran were not treated well by the federal and provincial governments, even though many had adequately described the threat of a Covid-19 outbreak. Although the government’s negligence did allow the virus to spread to other parts of the country, hatemongers exploited the issue by giving it a sectarian as well as a political colour. When TJ gatherings caused a similar spread, sectarian tensions became more visible. Initially, sectarian hatred remained confined to social media, but gradually it has reactivated banned sectarian groups hitherto suppressed by the state authorities. Once again, they have been given an opportunity to introduce the discourse of sectarian hatred in mosques and madressahs. Their re-emergence can inject new life into the largely non-functional violent sectarian groups.
The government’s confusion and delay in deciding to suspend religious gatherings in general and Friday congregations in particular was unnecessary. All the government needed to do was issue an executive order (as in many other Muslim countries) but it was nervous and continued to appease the clergy. Obviously, this lenient attitude encouraged the religious circles to flex their muscles. It also created space for sectarian and radical groups.
The government still has the ability to show resolve in dealing with the pandemic. But for this, it would have to change its sources of inspiration. The post-Covid-19 world will have little room for populist tendencies. China has a different system, but a lot could be learned from its experiences in dealing with pandemics. At the same time, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Germany could offer more to inspire many.
Pakistan’s financial and institutional limitations are known to all, but no one is stopping the government from investing in its future. The prime minister has promised a ‘naya Pakistan’ — which is not possible without the transformation of society, which in turn requires investing in the knowledge economy, education and health, besides reaffirming a strong belief in the practice of democratic norms and ideas.
The government and state institutions also have to overcome their weakness in dealing with religious actors and affairs. Power elites have to make a firm decision that religion and religious actors will not be used for any political purposes. Second, there is a need to encourage religious scholarship instead of religious brands, parties, sects and individuals. Post-pandemic Pakistan should have a clear vision about its future.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2020