Rising graph of discontent

Published December 26, 2010

PAKISTAN'S large and liberal but politically passive, or unassertive, majority has always been hostage to a strident, often troublesome, orthodox minority represented by a host of parties that collectively have not polled more than eight per cent of votes cast in any election.

The same can be said with greater emphasis about the country's National Assembly where in the current crisis eight members of Maulana Fazlur Rehman's JUI-F seem to matter more than the remaining 214 belonging to 10 moderate, some avowedly secular, parties and 19 independent members — all put together.

The religious elements have been relying on their capacity to incite the people to violence on the streets, rather than on their votes, to change the course of Pakistan's politics. It was entirely because of them that the country suffered its first, though brief and limited, martial law in 1953 and the other much longer, more comprehensive and pseudo-ideological one that came in 1977.

The overbearing clerics then prompted Gen Ziaul Haq to pursue policies and enact laws that made Pakistan appear a reactionary state worldwide and later pushed him into regional strife that has made its people victims of terror and its tribal areas a haven for terrorists. The blame for the ascendancy of reactionaries in politics primarily lies with the mainstream political parties. Each one of them, in turn, has been pampering the religious groups only to weaken the competing party.

The PPP and the PML ('N', 'Q' and 'F') are essentially liberal centrist parties. So are the MQM and ANP — though more regional and ethnic in character than the bigger two. There is little to distinguish one from the other in their political aims or economic programmes. All of them stand for a parliamentary form of government, provincial autonomy and free economy. Yet they are unable to tolerate each other, much less collaborate.

The PPP, of necessity, is in an alliance — an uneasy one — with the MQM in Sindh, as indeed it was also in 1988-90, only because its leadership finds it impossible to administer the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad on its own. The PPP–PML-N coalition in Punjab is even more uneasy. Both parties are pitched against each other in a bitter feud rather than working together in harmony. In the normal course, depending on the numbers, one should have been in the government and the other in opposition. Both of them share power but quarrel all the time. This is contrary to all parliamentary conventions.

In Sindh, despite suspicions and stresses afflicting an unwieldy coalition, the MQM acts as a secular bulwark against reactionary and sectarian forces in urban areas. The PML-F (also represented in government) led by the venerable Pir Pagara does the same in rural Sindh. Infighting in the Punjab coalition, on the other hand, is encouraging the forces of reaction and disorder in the province.

The politics of coalitions aside, the point to emphasis is that the liberal political forces while competing for power (which is a wholly legitimate activity) must not make the marginal reactionary elements arbiters of the nation's destiny. Martial law, economic backwardness, extremism and terrorism have become a part of our national life only because the Muslim League, the PPP and other parties have been doing exactly that.

It hurts even today to recall that East Pakistan would not have descended into civil war leading to defeat and separation had the political parties of the time not patronised and armed the religious extremists in the province. That warning still echoes faintly. It is a lesson to remember. Only a radical change in the outlook and priorities of political parties would check the national drift and dispel public gloom. The media, the army and the bureaucracy can only supplement their effort. The officially orchestrated national reconciliation is not going beyond a hunt for personal power and profit.

The despondency and despair of the common run of people show through the response a TV reporter received from a cross-section of citizens on a visit to Gujranwala, Punjab's third largest and, perhaps, also filthiest agro-industrial city. The reporter asked why the business community was not helping to improve civic conditions in the city. A factory owner answered that in fact it treated more patients and educated a larger number of students than did the government, and that it couldn't go about cleaning the city as well.

At a wrestling arena, the reporter asked why the old sport, once the pride of Gujranwala, was dying out? Said the keeper of the arena, “The diet of a wrestler costs Rs1,000 a day. I spend more than Rs100,000 a month of my own money only out of love for the sport. The government remains unconcerned and does nothing.”

A group of citizens in a street square said that they hadn't seen even the face of the MPA/MNA for whom they had voted, and were undecided as to who they would vote for the next time. “Perhaps Musharraf, because he was better than the present lot. daal

The price of , the staple of the poor, has gone up three times since his departure.” One person said that he barely made enough to survive and feed his family. “Why should I vote for anyone?” he added.

The Gujranwala observations seem to mirror the feelings of the poor of the country everywhere. The slowing down of the GDP is a cause of concern. But of greater concern should be the steep decline in GNH — gross national happiness — or public contentment, if you will.




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