Societal polarisation and Pakistan’s future

To some extent, Trump’s style of politics echoes in Pakistan

Ahmer Shahzad August 31, 2022
The writer is a retired Air Marshal of Pakistan Air Force

Rise of nationalism, racism and religious extremism at the beginning of the 21st century is a by-product of globalisation. As nation-states are permeated by transnational economics and societal trends, narratives based on racial, ethnic and religious divisions have become convenient enablers in obtaining political gains, but at the cost of national unity. In the very recent history, Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric permeated violence in the US society by inspiring white supremacism exploiting centuries-old prejudice entrenched in the American society. Hateful rhetoric attracted many alike, widening his electoral support, as the societal fractures deepened with surge in violence against the non-whites. Not only that, Trump brought in the notion of righteous based on self-conceived standards best suited to him, implicitly denying any prospect of dissent.

Those not in agreement were condemned to be unpatriotic, and unpardonable. Societal and political divisions under the garb of ‘America First’ worked well for his politics. Since independence, the national unity in Pakistan remained hostage to linguistic, sectarian and ethnic divides and other nationalist movements. The linguistic dissections exacerbated by political and societal injustices incurred by Bengalis fated in the separation of East Pakistan in 1971, whereas other enduring fissures continued to haunt national cohesion and country’s progress, however remained limited to the regions and varying time spells. Remaining insensitive to rising militancy and extremism, unintended consequence of Pakistan’s participation in the Afghanistan wars,

it was only ferocious Talibanisation of the Swat Valley, and horrific carnage in the Army Public School that led to shaking an unmoved nation and indecisive decision-making. In Pakistan ideologies, religion, ethnic and provincial identities shaped the political landscape. In the past, the tenor of the political rivalry had been intense, but not to the point of irreconcilability. However, it changed in the recent times to deep entrenched animosity. Post 2014 witnessed new entity, dynamically transforming politics by aggressively animating the narrative against the opponents on account of corruption, whose political legacies rested on dynastical continuation and religious cult, rather than pursuit of a progressive Pakistan. This appealed to youth and the middle class who were quite fatigued by the decades-old redundant rhetoric and mis-governance.

The educated class and youth eulogised this dynamism in the polity, reflecting greater awareness of the masses. To that end, it was all good for the country. In the months to come, this political following turned into blind faith in the narratives of the leadership, not challengeable even by the facts. The media was overemployed for demonising the divergence in opinion. As it continued, the discourse became intense and personalised, blended in animosity and hatred. Concurrently social media turned violent and untamed, transgressing the established values. All this instilled intolerance and violence in the political behaviour. Even the educated ones rigidified their pre-conceived views at the cost of facts and reasoning. Personal likes overshadowed sense of right or wrong, detrimental to the societal integrity.

As the social media was weaponised, for intimidation and to secure the desired results, it was turned towards military, judiciary and other state institutions, thus intentionally blurring the very definite lines. Recent derogatory attacks against Army martyrs had been simply reckless and disgusting with no such precedence elsewhere in the world. Simply the task of enemy agencies has been assumed by our own people unwittingly in disinformation, creating societal divides and fanning hatred. Notwithstanding political ascendancy through violent behaviours and intense narratives, our national unity, political stability, institutional sanctity and country’s progress have become a casualty to this political expediency.

To some extent, Trump’s style of politics echoes in Pakistan. America could still afford Trump’s divisive politics because of its almost inexhaustible natural resources as well as strong constitutional, societal and economic fundamentals. But Pakistan — facing daunting economic, governance, educational, societal and security challenges — can hardly afford the self-centred political adventurism, at the cost of nation’s future. Most damaging aspect of this societal polarisation is erosion of the youth capital, which forms 63% of our overall population. While Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world at 58%, after Honduras and Bangladesh, our youth is already struggling through lack of purposeful education, unemployment, sharp moral decline and other societal ills. As of now, it is one of the biggest challenges for impoverished Pakistan to channelise this chunk of the population.

Contrarily, steering disenchanted youth towards, hatred, violence and against the national institutions for sheer political gains is simply devastating. It is a high time for politicians, policymakers and others to wriggle out from the deep political battles to help Pakistan sail out of the mess of our own creating. Ego, personal likings and political imperatives should cede to the societal harmony, political stability and national interests. In that, broader political rapprochement is a must to save society from further alienation, necessitating measures that are direly needed for healing the fissured social structure and preserve the youth for a progressive Pakistan, rather than using them as political fodder. Pakistan with exploding population and receding natural resources must develop economic fundamentals and acquire economic relevancy.

Economic recovery and laying lasting economic foundation must take precedence over the rest. Pakistan’s friends and donors are long fatigued from our perpetual dysfunctional economy. Mere geostrategic location would not help Pakistan long in avoiding to become a baggage even for our staunchest supporter, China. CPEC is only a ‘Force Multiplier’, it must have a force to multiply, that is lacking as of now. The massive infrastructures raised under this programme should be orientated towards revenue generation rather than optically attractive enterprises. In the longer run, Pakistan’s economy cannot endure on remittances, IMF programmes and other fiscal donations sought at the cost of country’s self-respect.

Electoral spell oriented politics and populist measures introduced in Zia’s era need to be shunned for articulating the national strategy based on economic independence, true independence in the prevalent world. Same time, it is imperative to reject any notion of tweaking the Constitution to benefit particular political entity, to change the system of parliamentary government, or to bring technocrats for the national recovery as advocated by some. We have already wasted seven decades to such adventurism dating back to the era of intrigues played by the Iskander Mirza-Ayub Khan duo. The constitutional amendments if necessary should only be incorporated to strengthen the federation and its functionality. Unmistakably, our progression and future rests on continuation of the system that is based on rules and law, as warranted by the Constitution, as well as saving this nation from the societal polarisation.


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