Taking Sides: Faiz Ahmed Faiz's grandson describes the liberal Pakistani’s dilemma
There is a profusion of political personalities and parties in Pakistan’s polls. But thinking Pakistanis are conflicted about who to vote for.
- Total Shares
Sooner or later, one has to take sides — if one is to remain human.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American
I was recently witness to a most passionate political discussion in, of all places the city of St. Louis, Missouri, in the USA. The participants were all expat Pakistanis who have lived in the USA for 20+ years and have no intention of ever returning to Pakistan. Their children were all born in the USA and, in most likelihood, will also never live in Pakistan.
This is the effect that Pakistani politics has on people — even people whose lives are not affected by it in the slightest way.
As Pakistan heads into its third consecutive election in the last 10 years, a record in a country where civilian rule has regularly been interrupted by military dictatorships, the political landscape is familiar. There is Pakistan’s oldest existing political party, the Muslim League. It has been headed for the last three decades by three-time Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, who was recently disqualified (unfairly, argue his supporters) and jailed for corruption. The party is generously labeled "Center-Right" although its coddling of religious extremists was a perpetual thorn in the side of Pakistani liberals during its years in power.
Nawaz Sharif: Aka the 'sher' or 'lion' of Pak politics. (Photo: Reuters)
In a surreal turn of events, Mr Sharif, the protégé of a brutal military dictator and his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), have become something of a darling for Pakistan’s intelligentsia, by dint of Mr Sharif’s repeated tirades against the Pakistan Army and its ubiquitous "agencies". Even though Mr Sharif is in jail, his younger brother, Shahbaz, now head of the party, has been campaigning hard and the PML(N) remains a force to be reckoned with.
The historic Shimla Agreement (1972) where a young Benazir accompanied her father, Pak PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. (Photo: Butto.org)
Then there is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), founded by one of Pakistan’s most popular politicians, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (later deposed and hanged by a military dictator).
The PPP is headed by his grandson Bilawal, son of the slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In the 2013 election, due in no small part to the alleged corruption and nepotism of then-President Asif Ali Zardari (the late Benazir’s husband), the PPP was soundly defeated in most of the country and reduced to a rump in its home province of Sindh.
There's still something to smile about: Asif Zardari with son Bilawal Bhutto. (Photo: Associated Press)
Now, Mr Bhutto has been campaigning hard all over the country and the PPP, by virtue of its origins, is the only party that can lay claim to a secular, progressive, woman- and worker-friendly agenda, even though they have drifted far away from it in the last two decades.
The "upstart" in this campaign is the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), founded in 1996 by the charismatic and mercurial Imran Khan.
The man is mercurial: Imran Khan addresses a PTI rally. (Photo: Reuters)
Mr Khan’s exploits on the cricket field were, of course, legendary and included Pakistan’s first and only win in the World Cup in 1992 under his leadership. Following his cricketing career, Mr Khan distinguished himself by opening Pakistan’s first charity-funded cancer hospital in Lahore (he has since replicated that feat in Peshawar and Karachi) as well as by building a popular university in his hometown of Mianwali.
His foray into politics in 1996, when he founded the PTI, was less successful until 2013, when he managed to garner sufficient votes based on his program of Insaf (Justice), becoming a legitimate force on the national stage.
Mr Khan is now convinced that his time has come to form a national government.
His campaign has been dogged though by whispers that it has the overt and covert support of Pakistan’s "Mil-tablishment" (a phrase denoting the shadowy nexus between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, sections of the military high command and the bureaucracy, all accused of regularly interfering in elections as well as undermining civilian governments).
Mr Khan’s own gaffes on the campaign trail have not helped, nor has the fact that his originally anti-establishment party now boasts a galaxy of cast-offs and turncoats from the entire political spectrum. His recent speeches highlighting his support for Pakistan’s oppressive anti-minority laws are also alienating many.
There are a host of regional parties, none of whom are expected to get more than a handful of seats, and as usual, the hard-right clerics, many belonging to internationally proscribed religious groups who appear to have been mainlined just before the elections — once again, with the blessings of Pakistan’s "deep state".
He has their attention alright: Hafiz Saeed speaks. (Photo: Reuters)
Despite all this, there is just the hint of a silver lining.
Educated, independent campaigners are making a mark. One example is lawyer-turned-social activist Jibran Nasir in Karachi, who made waves by refusing to denounce Pakistan’s long-suffering Ahmadiyya community, and earned the wrath of the mullahs.
Making waves in Pakistan: Young political hopeful Jibran Nasir. (Photo: Facebook)
Pakistan’s miniscule and fractious Left, although they have never achieved any notable electoral success, are also fielding a handful of candidates including in Islamabad, the capital, under the banner of the Awami Worker’s Party (AWP). Their platform — employment, a livable minimum wage, womens’ and minorities rights, religious and ethnic pluralism, affordable housing and climate protection — reflects the aspirations of ordinary Pakistanis more than any other political party.
There is also the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement), a grassroots movement from Pakistan’s war-torn "tribal areas" on the border with Afghanistan, which has garnered huge support (mainly among ethnic Pashtuns and the intelligentsia) for its vocal opposition to enforced disappearances and army excesses in the tribal areas. They have also fielded a handful of candidates — and may have a real chance of winning at least one or two seats.
Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pakistan Tahaffuz Movement. (Photo: Dawn)
So, where does that leave those of us who are undecided?
Ideally, the AWP’s worker-, woman- and minority-friendly platform would be a Pakistani liberal’s dream come true. Sadly though, their actual electoral prospects appear dim, at least for now.
Should we then cast a vote for the PML-N as a "protest" vote against Pakistan’s establishment and in favour of civilian supremacy? Or, should we overlook Mr Khan’s missteps and give his PTI a chance? What about Mr Bhutto? Can he revitalize the PPP into a liberal, secular, worker and poor-friendly party like he has promised?
And what is to come in the future?
Was he right? Hum dekhenge. (Photo: Dawn)
The answer, as usual, was given by Pakistan’s foremost poet-intellectual Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Back in the late 1960s or 1970s, the story goes, someone wistfully asked him, "Faiz sahib, Pakistan ka kya banegay?" ("Faiz sahib, what will become of Pakistan?"). Faiz looked at the questioner with hooded eyes, inhaled deeply on his ever-present cigarette and replied in his soft drawl, "Bhai, hamain shak hai… kay Pakistan aisay hee chalta rahay ga…!"
("Brother, I suspect that Pakistan will continue the same way").
Truer words were never spoken.