Most of what General (retd) Pervez Musharraf said to the few people at the Karachi airport was delusional and egoistic nonsense. Well, no surprises there. However, there were two things that stood out; firstly, this was not the country he left, and secondly, that he was as much as a Muslim as anyone else; in fact, he was a “Syed”. Within these two statements is the acknowledgement and evidence of the changed landscape. The fact that the whisky drinking, cigar smoking Commando, the patron saint of the “moderate enlightenment” felt the need to affirm his faith-based credentials. Times they have changed. The present is a different country.
A day earlier, Mr Imran Khan addressed a huge crowd at Lahore. Mr Khan is on a mission to build a “New Pakistan”. However, listening to Mr Khan, one felt that there is already a new country, or at the very least, the process is well and truly in motion. Mr Khan led us through his core belief system and the spiritual path to salvation that he pursues, in elaborate detail. Religious references and rhetoric have been in vogue here right from the beginning. Yet, Mr Khan did not talk about religion in the rugged, honest to god, man of the people manner. Religious convictions once mentioned are enough; to stress unduly on the point is suspicious, unless it is geared towards a specific objective. Jalsas and public addresses are carefully scripted with specific objectives in mind. His opening talk was as close to a sermon as a political rally can be. It could be because Mr Khan is a devoutly religious man; if so, more power to him. However, it could also be because of a target audience. The very sizeable voter base of Mr Khan comprises mostly of politically conscious, energetic youth, not necessarily extremely religious. The really faithful are not likely to be swayed in any case. The few dozen supporters of the Commando do not care much about his personal piety or lineage either. Then why did both of them feel the need to wear faith on their sleeves?
They felt the need, perhaps because there is a new member in the audience. Invisible, yet undoubtedly present. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have expressed keen interest in the elections. They have even put aside their fundamental objections to the electoral process for now, and have given preferences. The TTP has told people to stay away from the PPP, the ANP and the MQM jalsas as they plan to attack them. Mr Khan is aware of this comparative advantage and is not keen to lose it. The unacknowledged audience, possibly even subconsciously, is the TTP. Not addressed directly. Not even looked at, they are supposed to overhear. The monitoring role and the picking of favourites by the TTP is new; they might even define what the “New Pakistan” will look like in the future.
It is unfair to single out Mr Khan alone. The PML-N has not come clean on the alliance with the ASWJ. The PML-N probably does not need the ASWJ vote anymore, yet considers it impolite to turn down their offer of assistance. The PPP has an electoral alliance with the Sunni Ittehad Council, displaying flexibility on ideals for a maximum gain of one seat. No explanation for the alliance has ever been given. The PTI now wants an arrangement with the JI, although we do not know yet whether it will materialise or not. One might say that this is very “Old Pakistan” like. It is for the most part, but not exactly. In the old country, the JI were a party of the faithful who believed women should have witnesses to the rape or remain mum and that Malala Yousufzai was never shot at, etc. And you either agreed with them or you didn’t. In the new country, you suspend judgment till the outcome of the negotiations for the alliance. If it does not work out, the JI is what we know it to be. If it does, the JI is at least not financially corrupt (a demonstrably false claim), not part of the status quo, etc. No marks or face is lost in trying to make an alliance/arrangement in the first place. A candidate who leaves a party is good riddance, the party cleansed. Of course, in the event he/she chooses to return immediately, they are again the brilliant statesperson the party and the country needed.
Political affiliations and alliances have always been fickle in this country. Yet, the movement and the responding to sudden inner voices of conscience in the past few days are really something else. No reason given for leaving a party or for joining a new one. Not even unconvincing token excuses. Politics has no hinge. The new country suffers from amnesia.
It can be argued that the PML-N, the PTI and all those not mentioned specifically by the TTP are not to be blamed since they do not influence the TTP decision-making process. This is unquestionably true. And this is election; this is war, Hobbes and Darwin. No time for high moral grounds.
One has to disagree with this argument. They can and should condemn the threat by the TTP. Exempt them from the condescending and insulting offer of protection. Not only because they should want to ideally defeat the rivals in a fair fight, the PTI and the PML-N are going strong anyway, why give somebody an excuse. And also to do otherwise is bad politics. It is dangerous politics. Election is or should not be quite literally war, neither with actual blood nor with the threat of it. If public condemnation of the TTP for this does not come from everyone, the election has already become slightly less free, less fair. This is the start “New Pakistan” is getting. Rewarding and incentivising surrender and punishing and discouraging courage. If the customary clichés are to be invoked, the new country can perhaps be called “TTP’s Pakistan”, since they are the ones in the driving seat.
There is admittedly “newness” to what is happening, in the elementary sense of “not being like the old”. We have no reasons for false nostalgia of the old country, it needed to be changed. Some of the change is heartening, most recently the appointment of the caretakers without much commotion. Yet, perhaps we should also have the cautionary thought that new is not always good; all change is not for the better.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2013.
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