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Discussion on elections at the Frontline Club

May 06, 2013

AFTER Benazir Bhutto’s assassination over five years ago (how time flies!), the only political figure in Pakistan foreigners have heard of is Imran Khan. His fame is largely attributable to his cricketing prowess and his winning ways with the ladies in England’s upper class. Who wouldn’t envy his track record?But as a politician, people here in the UK are unclear what he stands for. I am often asked by English friends about his chances of coming to power, and thus far, I have replied “very remote”.

However, given the traction his Movement for Justice has been getting of late, I have started hedging my downbeat assessment.

This was one of the questions on the agenda of the discussion on the upcoming elections held at London’s famous Frontline Club recently. The club is the venue where Julian Assange stayed and held court for weeks before he sought refuge at the Norfolk estate of the founder, Vaughan Smith. Among the many well-known personalities who have spoken here was Benazir Bhutto. I was last there to hear Ahmed Rashid speak about his new book last year.

The club is dedicated to press freedom, and has hosted some 1200 events since it was founded in 2003. Apart from a smallish hall that seats around a hundred, it has a cosy members’ bar and an excellent restaurant open to the public. The running costs are met by charging tickets for talks, and from membership fees and the takings of the restaurant and bar.

So when I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on the Pakistani elections, I was delighted to accept. The other panellists were Wajid Shamsul Hasan, our High Commissioner in London; Umber Khairi of BBC’s Urdu service, and an old friend; and Pir Zubair Shah, the Pulitzer Prize winning Pakistani journalist. Moderating the proceedings was Paddy O’Connell of the BBC.

The audience was a mixture of desis and Brits, with several friends who had turned up to fly the flag for the home team. We kicked off by explaining to the audience who the major contenders were, and I could see eyes glazing over as we went through the list: PPP, ANP, PML-N, PTI, MQM, etc. As I named the leaders of these parties, I had some difficulty explaining how Altaf Hussain has run his party from London for 20 years.

The truth is that very few Brits — or foreigners of any kind — know or care very much about our elections. By and large, they see Pakistan as the source of most of their security problems, whether as a threat to their soldiers in Afghanistan, or as an incubator for many of the terrorist plots and attacks hatched by young British radicals of Pakistani origin.

Indeed, at one point the moderator asked for a show of hands to indicate how many had heard of Pakistan being referred to as ‘Denialistan’. This was in reference to the widely shared perception of a country that closes its eyes to the anti-Western sentiments that fester among a vast majority of Pakistanis. At the same time, Pakistan continues to beg for aid from the very countries at the receiving end of extremist violence exported from our shores.

Inevitably, the talk turned to drone attacks, and Pir Zubair Shah, who happens to be from South Waziristan, made the point that people living in the affected areas supported the US campaign. He was convinced that there was no other way to eliminate the Taliban who were holding local tribesmen hostage.

My discussion with the former chief secretary of KP province a couple of years ago reinforced this viewpoint: according to this top official of the provincial administration, the further away people were from the tribal areas, the more they fulminated against the drones. According to him, villagers whose lives had been made hell by the terrorists welcomed American drone attacks that were generally very precise.

Both the moderator and the audience were horrified at the level of violence unleashed against certain parties by the Taliban. We in Pakistan have become so accustomed to terrorist violence that we forget how unusual it is. For some 25 years, sundry ethnic, sectarian and religious groups have been tearing the country apart. Both military and civilian rulers have witnessed the weakening of the writ of the state as though they were rabbits frozen in the glare of onrushing car headlights.

One elderly lady remarked that listening to our description of the violence, it seemed that Pakistan was a failed or failing state. Instantly, the panel went into denial: we all repeated the familiar mantra that Pakistanis were very resilient, and somehow or other, we would overcome the terrorist threat.

But in my heart of hearts, I put this optimism down to wishful thinking: for far too long, the state has retreated before the extremist juggernaut. This refusal to take a stand stems from the mass confusion about the nature of the threat we face. In the West, there is a broad consensus that governments will fight Islamist terrorism with all the means at their disposal.

There is no such resolve in Pakistan. Here, politicians, generals, journalists and the public are all too often divided over how to face the jihadi peril. Many are taken in by the religious rhetoric used by the terrorists, not realising that this is a smokescreen for a naked power grab. Others secretly subscribe to the aims of the Taliban. People like Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif help to spread this confusion.

Our audience at the Frontline Club was under no such delusion. Most could not understand why the Pakistani state allowed such anarchy to prevail if it was not complicit. In my concluding remarks, I said that as a Pakistani, I had to hope that things would improve, but as a realist, I was very pessimistic.