FOR a few weeks in the autumn, Nawaz Sharif’s fiery speeches from London’s comfortable confines had even the most seasoned observers suggesting that Pakistan’s polity was on the cusp of an epochal transformation. Some pronounced that the age-old establishment-centric script of Pakistani politics was being rewritten, once and for all.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) took up the scandal of enforced disappearances and criminalisation of political dissidents. It invited revisionist takes on Pakistan’s ‘official’ history, vociferously challenging the refrain of ‘traitor’ that has been employed against figures like Sheikh Mujib, Bacha Khan, G.M. Syed and virtually every major Baloch political leader since Partition.
But a rip-roaring debut has given way to talk of fissures amongst the parties that make up the alliance, and whether big players really want to confront the establishment, or are seeking only a piece of the proverbial pie. Whatever happens in the short run, the evolution of PDM’s political and historical narrative is, in my opinion, worthy of greater scrutiny.
On Tuesday, PDM leaders gathered outside the ECP office to demand action on the seven-year old foreign funding case against the ruling PTI. Before and after what was a relatively low-key affair, both opposition and government engaged in the usual war of words about how much of a punch the protest actually packed. In fact, the speeches made by Maryam Nawaz and Maulana Fazlur Rahman suggest that both sides share much more than their verbal sparring otherwise suggests.
The evolution of PDM’s narrative deserves greater scrutiny.
In referring to the petition of the original complainant in the foreign funding case, PTI founding member Akbar S. Babar, both PDM bigwigs talked up the fact that the now ruling party and Prime Minister Imran Khan had ‘received funds from India and Israel’. The government was also accused of selling out the ‘Kashmir cause’ to the Modi regime. Slogans against ‘yahood-o-hunood ki sazish’ (Jewish-Hindu conspiracy) rang around the gathering.
Such accusations and slogans, as Nawaz Sharif reminded us in his initial speeches some months ago, have sustained the establishment-centric political order for decades. Khan has employed such rhetoric many times, notwithstanding his own personal history of marrying a British Jew. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid dedicated a significant part of his press briefing on Tuesday to foreign and domestic conspirators and his commitment to the defence of Islam.
The PDM’s initial narrative stood out not necessarily because it targeted the ‘selectors’. More significant was the spectacle of a three-time Punjabi prime minister at least partially debunking the very official ideologies that have facilitated the steady militarisation of state, society and economy.
Some might argue that beggars (read: democratic and progressive forces) cannot be choosers. Even if Jewish-Hindu conspiracy talk is doing the rounds in opposition circles this does not lessen the contribution of the PDM to the consolidation of growing anti-establishment sentiment within society at large, most notably in Punjab.
I agree that democratisation is far from a linear process, and one can draw some lessons from other contexts, including the end of the Trump presidency. Newspapers, TV channels and social media were all ablaze about Trump’s departure and the Biden-Harris inauguration. Some celebrated the ‘victory of democracy’, but the main sentiment was relief about the return to ‘normal’. The feel-good factor carried over into the new administration’s first day when it lifted draconian immigration bans and announced that the US was rejoining the Paris climate accord.
Expect the honeymoon period to be short. When Biden triumphed in the election, some progressive voices tried to remind us that it was the diabolical ‘normal’ that set the stage for the rise of Trump in the first place. Barack Obama, America’s first black president, preceded Trump, just as the first coloured woman vice president in US history, Kamala Harris follows. Symbolism is important, but it is another matter to take on big capital, undermine entrenched structures of classed, gendered and racialised power in American society, and undo the US global imperialist footprint.
In Pakistan, we are once again witness to an establishment-sponsored political project nosediving, alongside an opposition alliance tapping on anti-incumbency sentiment but increasingly resorting to refrains of ‘foreign conspiracy’ and ‘national security’. Sooner or later, Pakistan’s incarnation of Trump will leave the scene and it would not be surprising if this is accompanied by banter about the ‘victory of democracy’ and a return to ‘normal’.
But mainstream parties’ stunted economic, political and ideological horizons set the stage for Pakistan’s hybrid regime in the first place. So long as invoking domestic and foreign ‘enemies’ is our ‘normal’, expect Pakistan’s tryst with praetorianism to continue unabated.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 22nd, 2021