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The sound and fury

May 06, 2013

THE crucial issues the next government will face — internal security, foreign policy and the economy, for example — are conspicuous by their absence from the speeches being delivered these days. There’s no shortage of colour, though.

The newspapers and television are replete with advertisements that are in substance no more than scores being settled. From the PPP we have this print offering: “The nation is reaping what you had sown”, followed by reprinted headlines: “Pakistan requires a Taliban-like system: Nawaz Sharif” (Nov 17, 1998, Daily Jang).

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and the PML-N seem to be having a rock, paper, scissors-type contest, discussing whether the tiger (the PML-N election symbol) can crush the bat (the PTI election symbol) in its big, big teeth or whether the bat can cause skull damage.

At a Lahore rally on Thursday, Imran Khan said he felt sorry for the PML-N because it was heading for a humiliating battering on election day, adding that “God Himself has taken suo motu notice of Pakistan as its people have suffered a lot.” A couple of days before that, he told a UK newspaper that the Taliban did not kill Benazir Bhutto, but did not say where he got the information from.

I know electioneering, particularly in Pakistan, is all about pressing the populist buttons and roaring louder than your opponent — and, of course, freedom includes the freedom to lay claim to the rope with which you can hang yourself — but really?

On the count of electioneering alone, since April 11 (a month before the polls) there have been close to 50 attacks killing almost 80 people, including two contesting candidates. Three major parties have been directly threatened and attacked by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and their electioneering is hampered as a result. The chief election commissioner has implied that unless security is provided, the elections will present far from a level playing field.

Is this abysmal level of discourse on part of those who are competing to take up the helm of governance what the poor Pakistanis deserve for all their sufferings?

Perhaps they do; regretfully, Pakistani society — of which the political class is inextricably part and representative — has shown a tendency to have a short memory and an unwillingness to understand matters to any degree of complexity; Macbeth’s soliloquy on tales told by idiots is what comes to mind.

A newspaper photograph from 1992 depicts a whip-thin Imran Khan and a beaming Nawaz Sharif, surrounded by members of the then Pakistan cricket team. They had just won the World Cup at Melbourne, and Khan and Sharif (then prime minister) are together holding the Waterford Crystal trophy. It was a glorious moment; they were complimenting each other then.

There are ironies and there are tragedies.

The PML-N has been quoting the Marxist poet Habib Jalib’s poem Dastoor (The System), with its famous main nahin manta (I refuse to accept) refrain, in campaign speeches. I hope the electorate remembers that Jalib used his pen to resist martial law regimes from Ayub Khan onwards and this poem in particular is an iconic part of the remarkable poetry of resistance that has been produced in Pakistan by anti-martial law activists. I hope voters recall that the Sharif brothers’ political legacy began under the patronage of Gen Ziaul Haq.

Of course, it is perfectly permissible to begin at a certain place and then head to another altogether — no political party in Pakistan is quite free of damning controversy, and there are several indications that our political elites have learned and matured; but how come the PML-N some years ago (and in recent days the PTI) restricted itself to merely appealing to the Taliban to stop being so vicious, rather than condemning them?

On the other side of the coin, the PTI has created a television advertisement to the lyrics of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem, ‘Hum Dekhain Gay’ (though thankfully, not the original Iqbal Bano version). And why not, for the religious imagery in which the poem is couched suits the PTI’s message perfectly. Once again, its leader reiterated his desire last week to make Pakistan a “real Islamic welfare state”.

He says he is appealing to the country’s youth, that his party will provide jobs and increase the education budget to 5pc of GDP from the current 2pc. Could the country’s youth be too young, now, to remember the original context in which this poem was written, why it became an iconic part of the resistance to Zia’s martial law?

This I can say with certainty: they don’t teach that part of history in schools, and few among the youth have the ability or inclination to do much outside reading anymore.

(One in 10 of all the world’s out-of-school children is in Pakistan. There are 26 countries poorer than us but send more of their children to school. The report Education Emergency, compiled in 2011, said that at the then rates of progress, no Pakistani alive now would live to see a Pakistan with universal education, while Balochistan would not see it anytime this century. This situation has not changed.)

Perhaps Pakistan ought to hang from the streetlamps lists of its sins of omission and commission that got us to the present pass, the triumphs, and the parties responsible — including the electorate, the political classes, the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy.

As we discuss the man whose fate just might settle the question of interventions in civilian governance, we might want to look backwards and introspect, remind ourselves that the fate of a society or a state is never sealed by one man on his own; we might want to dwell upon the complexities.

The writer is a member of staff.