Missiles no threat to polls, but...

Published January 21, 2024
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

IRAN and Pakistan exchanged missiles, presumably fired by drones, aimed at Baloch ‘camps’ either side of the border this week, before quickly signalling de-escalation and returning to talk of ‘brotherly relations’.

As bizarre and pointless as the exchange initiated by Iran appeared, the rapidity of the de-escalation appeared equally inexplicable, as diplomats quickly took over the discourse from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Pakistani military, both of whom held centre stage briefly and spoke through their weapons.

A whole piece would be needed to explore Iran’s rationale for its missile attack, targeting a camp of the militant group Jaish al-Adl which is said to be engaged in an armed conflict with the Iranian state. IRGC operations have much to do with asserting its status as the top military force in Iran. Once its attack happened, a Pakistani response in kind was always on the cards.

There were many compulsions, and the first obvious, official one was that the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty had been breached and violated violently. Therefore, a response had to come to tell one and all the consequences of attacking Pakistan.

With elections round the corner, which party’s manifesto has inspired confidence?

If one were to look at other factors that weren’t being mentioned by the country’s media, the foremost appeared to be the need to spotlight the defence forces’ capacity to respond to any threat posed by external powers against the backdrop of criticism of the security establishment for its political engineering.

In brief, the domestic factor was not an insignificant one, particularly with social media accounts belonging to one particular political party, whose turn it is to be on the receiving end of the wrath of the powers that be, mocking their nemesis and questioning the latter’s ability to respond militarily.

Little wonder Pakistan’s response was egged on and supported by several TV personalities known to have close ties with the establishment. One can safely say their tone and tenor would have been much different had the decision been not to retaliate, for example. In any case, some credit was earned by the military leadership, as even their usual detractors conceded the development as having had a positive impact on their ‘popularity’ ratings.

That Pakistan remains a complex story to tell for journalists like me was demonstrated by some other media personalities who appeared ecstatic that the missile attack would potentially derail elections, as ‘this national security challenge’ needed to be addressed urgently, setting aside all other national priorities. Whose view were they articulating? The caretakers?

However, the speed of de-escalation, which started with a conciliatory statement by the foreign ministry in Tehran and followed through by diplomats meeting and exchanging direct messages, poured cold water over the dreams of the ‘election postponement’ camp.

This camp’s wishful thinking was strange anyway after the Supreme Court endorsed the ECP decision to deprive the PTI of its electoral symbol, while overturning the Peshawar High Court verdict on the matter. It should have been clear to all that one of the last obstacles to an establishment-controlled ‘reset to 2016’ election had been removed.

That decision seems to have convinced the political parties, most notably the PML-N, that elections will indeed be held in under three weeks’ time and that, in turn, they needed to gear up their mass contact campaigns to win, even if their main opponent was fighting with their hands tied.

Despite recent doubts, mainly on account of the ‘democratic’ Western nations’ response to the Gaza genocide, I have long believed that even a watered-down democratic order is better than autocratic rule, as the former affords some openness and a semblance at least of basic rights. Call me naïve, if you will.

In Pakistan, all political parties without exception have justifiably blamed the establishment for interfering in the decision-making process and eventually ending up undermining the very order that, in instances, it helped put in place. They also need to do some serious soul-searching.

With elections round the corner, which party’s manifesto has inspired confidence in you? That is, if you have been fortunate enough to have seen one. I haven’t. The main contender to the Islamabad and Lahore thrones says its manifesto will likely be made public on Jan 27. Yes, the PML-N will make public its pledges to the people a mere 13 days before the polling day.

Earlier this month, the PPP came up with a 10-point programme that can best be called a wish list, with no costing as to how it will ‘double’ salaries, build three million homes, give free up to 300 electricity units to the poor, etc, etc. Reminded one of the PTI’s 5m homes pledge in 2018.

There can be no doubt the establishment has constantly stymied democracy in the country but with such sketchy plans (or none at all), surely the political parties also hand over the initiative elsewhere. For example, no party has said a word about how it will resolve the burning Baloch rights issues or the physical threat being posed to our soldiers and civilians alike by the TTP and separatists in Balochistan.

With the exception of the out-of-favour party, for now, all others appear focused on staying in the good books of those who are managing the ‘reset to 2016’ process. Their worry isn’t whether an exchange of missiles with Iran may derail the elections. Their only concern is to stay on the right side of those they think matter.

The people, the teeming millions, who should be at the heart of any democracy, seem marginal to the whole process. All is well, of course, as long as they show up at the jalsas and on Feb 8 to vote for those who seem to be making tall promises in their speeches but appear short on details of how they will deliver.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2024

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