After the crescendo of what looked like a “reactive” Sindh Card, the PPP has unleashed a barrage of what is seen by the people as defamatory remarks about the PML-N leadership. It is reactive because the name-calling began in Punjab, spearheaded by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and taken up later by PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif. The bellwether of this campaign was the PML-N leader of the opposition in the National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. The not-so-hidden objective was to prepare the voters for the elections later in the year, relying on the traditional instinct of voting on the basis of hatred.
The attack on the PML-N in response has come from the PPP’s top leader who is also the president of the country, Asif Ali Zardari. Exaggeration and braggadocio is the staple of this ignoble exchange. There are ample grounds for this kind of mudslinging: the state is suffering from a weakened writ resulting in abysmal executive performance through a reluctant and scared bureaucracy in the face of a declining resource-base, all of which is made worse by rampant corruption.
The battleground rules are set by the media, which is intensely focusing on the dysfunction of the governments at the centre and the provinces. Instead of analysing the causes dispassionately, TV anchors base their shows on people’s raw emotion and then let the politicians get at one another’s throat in discussions that look like cockfights. The insult offered is primitive, recalling tribal societies in which honour is prized above all. The PPP recalls the arrest and incarceration of Mr Zardari for nearly a decade, without conviction, as a badge of honour while contrasting it with the arrest of Nawaz Sharif and his family by the Musharraf regime and the decision it realistically made to quit Pakistan instead of rotting in jail. One purely “tribal” blow was clearly below the belt: Mr Zardari denied that he had said that because of the ignominious “flight” of the Sharifs their father could not be given a proper funeral. The insult was compounded by the “fact” that the funeral was not well-attended and that its procession was taken to Data Darbar in Lahore to attract funeral-followers.
Imitating Nawaz Sharif, who has been making forays into Sindh and acting as if he plans to undermine the PPP in its fastness of popular support, President Zardari descended on Lahore on April 4 and proclaimed in pure hyperbole that the PPP would defeat the PML-N in central Punjab. This was meant more as a morale booster for the rather depressed provincial PPP leadership cowering before the insults unleashed by Shahbaz Sharif than as a credible challenge to the PML-N. The only factor that may upset the Sharifs is the compounding presence of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf which is challenging their power in their homeground. Imran Khan, too, has latched on to the device of insulting the incumbents to incline the voters to abandon their traditional favourites. All this will impact society, polarise it further, and make the next polls violent. Language is a great prompter of action. Violent language is often an indicator of violent intent. A misguided embrace of international isolationism, xenophobic anti-Americanism and prophylactic acceptance of Talibanisation have bred intolerance and extremism as the “surface phenomena” of society. Shahbaz Sharif’s campaign to provoke the Punjab masses into undertaking a Long March against Islamabad is subtle exploitation of these social symptoms.
Some of this kind of behaviour is observable in all countries where problems abound without easy solutions, but in Pakistan it blends with terrorism and can be more anarchic and destructive of state institutions than anywhere else in the world. Exaggerated criticism tends to make later self-correction hard to achieve. There is no disagreement among economists that Pakistan will have to take hard and unpopular decisions to overcome the current crisis of the state. The PPP and PML-N are queering the pitch for anyone who will get to rule Pakistan next.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2012.