ON 6 OCTOBER, cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan led a rally to the borders of South Waziristan. Accompanied by a few thousand people, including a number of foreign and local journalists. The journey ended in Tank where the army stopped him from going any further. There were tweets claiming that the army major who stopped the entourage saluted Khan, the founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and told him to turn back as he was the country’s future and the army wanted to ensure his safety.
Naturally, Khan complied and didn’t insist at all on finishing his journey and taking the message of peace and love to the Taliban, who had already stated that they would target him if he entered Waziristan. There was not even an admission by Khan of the fact that he could not travel further because the Taliban are dangerous. Wonder if the attack on Malalai Yousafzai, a 14-year-old girl from Swat who raised her voice against the Taliban, a day after the failed march, would make him realise the religious warriors aren’t open to negotiations.
But perhaps reaching Waziristan was not Khan’s ultimate target. The march was meant to be a publicity stunt and an effort to reverse the former cricketer’s falling popularity. Recent opinion polls show Khan’s graph going down as opposed to the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif group). Travelling around central Punjab, I could feel the opinion changing about Khan and turning slightly in the PML-N’s favour. There are several factors that may eventually decide which way the tables turn on election day, but the main battle of ideas is between the PTI and the PML-N.
There is greater discomfort in Punjab regarding the role played by the PPP and President Asif Ali Zardari. There are several constituencies where people confronted with making a choice between the PTI and the PML-N have even begun to think more carefully about how they will eventually vote. This is because they don’t want the PPP to be an inadvertent beneficiary of the duel between the other two parties. Many were even of the opinion that they would rather vote for Sharif than Khan, who seems to be sending confusing signals regarding his perception of politics and principles of politics. It will be unfair to frame the general suspicion of Zardari as a reflection of Punjabi bias. The state of the economy and institutional decay are major issues that people are worried about.
Although one scenario is that the PPP may get re-elected, it does not seem likely while talking to people. The weariness of poor governance has begun to show in people’s attitude to the extent that they may even rise above group and caste considerations if they were more confident about whom to vote for. Historically, Pakistan, where elections are reputed to be on baradari (clan) basis, people have risen above such considerations when it was critical to decide for their future. The referendum of 1946 (not adult franchise) and the elections of 1970 (adult franchise) are two such examples.
While some people feel that Khan might rise above such mundane considerations, this might not happen as some have predicted. Although a lot is being said about the vote of the youth that may turn the tide, there is still no indication that even the youth are completely convinced of the PTI being the harbinger of a new Pakistan. There are people who have begun to question his rhetoric about eradicating corruption within 90 days of coming to power.
In many respects, Khan symbolises the discourse for change. It is just that he himself might not be that change. The general public is tired of poor governance and an extremely bad image of Pakistan. Power cuts for hours, accompanied with a rise in cost of living, lowered productivity and damage done to the small and medium enterprises by the dumping of Chinese goods are some of the many problems that add to the fear of violence and terror. Zardari may be excellent in surviving attacks on his government, but he seems to have little sense of the need to connect with people. In any case, the PPP suffers from an inherent problem of being an agitational party that performs well in the Opposition but less so when in power. No wonder, the party is no longer urban-based but a rural one that may get even further limited in the coming polls.
Travelling across Punjab, one even begins to understand how the incumbency factor might play out. Technically, it should affect both the PML-N and the PPP since the former controls the Punjab province and the latter the federal government. There seems to be the possibility of the weight of the incumbency factor getting divided between the two parties with the greater impact being on the PPP rather than the PML-N. The ordinary voter in Punjab province has not given up on Sharif.
The next elections will have to be fought strategically, thus, all parties seem to be following what seems to be a popular tide. Since there is a general tendency not to take any risk, no party wants to be seen as extremely secular-liberal. It is a matter of gaining votes, which may result in seat adjustment with some of the militant group-controlled political groups as well. Politically, as push comes to shove, none of the parties are overtly concerned about crossing the ideological barrier and partnering with the militant. The only condition is, of course, a no-objection certificate from the security establishment that can show that some groups are better than others.
Khan symbolises the discourse for change. But he himself might not be that change
For instance, there are some constituencies in Punjab where the PML-N is reportedly negotiating seat adjustment with the banned Ahle-Sunnat Wal-Jammat, popularly known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. Even the PPP is doing seat adjustment with Ahle-Hadith (not JUD). At one level, such factors would make the PML-N not very different from the PTI, which is generally accused of being more right wing and pro-Taliban than most. There are lesser evidence of structural alignment between the religious-extremist groups and the PPP. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily indicate that the overall policy perspective is liberal or secular.
The fact remains that there is an overall shift in the societal discourse and attitude reflected in an expanding influence of the right wing in the society at large. In fact, Khan appears to be trying to accommodate the popular sentiment and religion in his political discourse. Sharif, on the other hand, is already doing that and the Punjab government has taken a few measures to accommodate the interests of some of the militant groups that seem to have made greater inroads in the society. Some of the senior law enforcement officers believe that such adjustments are the only method to eliminate the influence of the militant by bringing him into the mainstream and building his stakes so that he does not resort to violence.
THIS APPROACH is problematic but the reality is that no one appears to be offering a different gameplan. When it comes to confronting violence, even the seemingly liberal-secular Awami National Party (ANP) spews rabid discourse. It was recently that ANP minster Ghulam Ahmed Bilour put a prize of a million rupees for anyone who killed the maker of the film Innocence of Muslims.
Mian Mansha, one of Pakistan’s prominent entrepreneurs, argues that the influence of militant groups is likely to wither away once the economy gets better. People with greater capacity to earn money will have lesser reason to fight. Even the militants have now evolved business interests for which they use religion to maximise gains. This means that the fight is not about deep-set ideology but about personal and group gains. Mansha may be thinking too simplistically of the problem but he may not be too wrong either as the issue is to challenge the ideological force through other means.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc