FROM India to Brazil, and the United States to Europe, a drift to authoritarianism is derailing democracy. Divisive polarising figures occupy high offices, challenging the very edifice on which democracies thrive. Respecting political opponents, fair play and transparency are hallmarks of democratic tradition. But these values are increasingly disappearing.
The manhandling of Rahul Gandhi by Indian police on the orders of the UP chief minister as he attempted to reach out to a Dalit rape victim’s family has been viewed globally as an attack on India’s democracy. So has Donald Trump’s attempt to pack the US supreme court with right-wing justices not representative of changing American demographics, or his attempts at discrediting mail-in ballots, endeavouring to call into question the credibility of the November presidential election. Less talked about internationally, but equally worrying, are the efforts of the Tories in the UK to appoint an ex-tabloid editor known for his partisan views as head of the BBC.
All of this is shocking for many in established democracies but it is an unfortunate sign of our times. So many who previously thought that the US, for instance, a strong democracy with checks and balances and a clear separation of powers, could survive a Trump presidency without any damage to American democratic ideals have changed their minds. More and more Americans have begun to realise that the politics of resistance is the need of the hour.
Maryam’s support in Punjab isn’t in question.
In Pakistan, we have not historically had the robust democratic structure that countries like the US, UK and even India had, but we have had our share of democratic movements, at various junctures, to push back against dictators and undemocratic forces. Curiously, the burden to lead these movements has often fallen on female shoulders. From Fatima Jinnah fighting against Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime, to Benazir Bhutto standing firm against Ziaul Haq, it has been Pakistani women who have been the biggest symbols of resistance to authoritarianism. Is Maryam Nawaz up to the task?
We know that Maryam often disagreed with the uncles in her party and was characterised by the establishment as a hardliner pursuing ‘the politics of confrontation’. What this really means is that she was far less willing to meet kingmakers through back-door channels, and preferred a more above-board politics. With the arrest of leader of the opposition Shahbaz Sharif, previously considered conciliator-in-chief, Maryam’s stance has been vindicated.
The question now arises — will she speak out only when the Sharif family is politically victimised or will she also raise her voice for more marginalised activists and politicians, the likes of the PTM, for instance? There was a time when the Sharif brothers were simply corrupt. Now, like PTM leaders, Nawaz Sharif has also moved into the traitor category. Will Maryam be able to reach out beyond the Punjabi heartland to make alliances in the peripheral regions of ex-Fata and Balochistan?
Red zone files: The Maryam factor
In the US, it took the Democratic Party far too long to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, and include within its fold the marginalised segments of society. Four years ago, like the PTM in Pakistan, BLM was considered a radical movement from which Democrats cautiously kept their distance, but this election cycle the movement has been mainstreamed to the point of not only influencing American but also European politics.
Towards the end of Musharraf’s reign, when he failed to end corruption or dynastic politics in Pakistan, as he had promised on taking over, a minister in his cabinet confessed to me that, “When the establishment propped up Nawaz Sharif, it unwittingly provided a political voice to the Punjabi trading classes, and that base isn’t so easy to dismantle now.”
Maryam’s support in Punjab, therefore, isn’t in question. If she wants to emerge as a leader on the national stage, however, she will need to make unconventional alliances and speak out for those in the peripheries, who have borne the brunt of the establishment’s high-handedness for a lot longer than she and her family have.
It is quite clear that Imran Khan, another polarising and divisive world leader, is more interested in incarcerating political opponents than delivering for the people. But it was heartening to see that Maryam did not only call him out but also questioned the role of other key players in the hybrid regime. The most honest and relevant statement in her recent press conference was her acknowledgement that it isn’t easy to resist undemocratic forces. She spoke about journalists, judges, politicians — all being put under pressure to compromise on principled positions.
It is a cost that is difficult to bear and should not be asked of any citizen, particularly not in a state that claims to follow Madina ki riyasat. Resistance is a tall order, but resist we must.
The writer is a lawyer based in London.
Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2020