What next — a directional query

With elections rapidly approaching all political elements double down on their narratives

Farrukh Khan Pitafi January 27, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates

With the elections rapidly approaching all political elements double down on their narratives. If you want to look like a victim, you find ways to look more like a victim. If you want to sound like a conquering hero you attract enough battle drums to sound like one. In both cases, you run the risk of becoming dysfunctional by inhaling too much of your own propaganda. When it is common knowledge that the system has always been too broken to stop feeding more wood to your fire and set the record straight, there is no corrective method left when you start substituting words for action. Pakistani politics is in its survivalist mode. If you are out of sight, you are out of mind and natural selection.

Before we move forward I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not have any political favourites. And it will become clearer to you that I am ready to cut a lot of slack to those parties with whom I do not agree on matters of policy or principles.

Beyond the debates about the transparency of the election process and emerging or failing electoral alliances there lie certain greater issues that, in essence, represent the culmination point of struggles and conflicts of the past twenty-five years. For the past two and a half decades we have lived through the worst identitarian conflict of our time which repeatedly brought us to our knees. Just because it draws less attention doesn’t mean it has ceased to be an issue.

Ask yourself why it was that the country’s citizens fought and killed eighty thousand of their co-nationals and often coreligionists. Why was it that the two political parties from Punjab were originally soft on terrorism? When the PMLN came to power in 2013 it bent over backwards to reach a settlement with the TTP. These efforts failed and the country went to war. But the broader issue still needs your attention.

The leader of the other party from Punjab did not mind when the TTP proposed his name as the mediator. He even went out of the way to propose establishing a TTP office modelled after the Afghan Taliban’s office in Doha. Today, the Afghan Taliban rule Afghanistan and all the intermediaries and negotiating parties are gone. How could a TTP office result in anything different? But that’s not all. In its final days, the PTI government cut a deal with the TTP which amounted to throwing away the progress made over two decades. You are still not seeing the common denominator?

An argument can be made that the other parties, notably the PPP and the ANP, tried something similar in Swat and that they are not from Punjab. True. Even though the Swat talks and the deal both were short-lived, you can say that these two also blinked, right? Well, you can argue but that would be an exaggeration. You know well as I do that the two parties have no sympathy for this kind of ideology. Whatever concessions were given to the non-state actors during their rule were most likely forced upon them. This is patently unlike the inherent predilections of the other two.

The two parties from Punjab are not the issue. That they did not see a group of anti-state killing machines as an existential threat is. Power is always contextual. Politics may often claim that it is in pursuit of an ideology but all it actually cares about is power. Perhaps because the other three provinces were more openly mauled by the terrorists their approach towards such groups is more well-defined than the most populous province. Perhaps. But then there is the sentiment towards the Afghan Taliban which helps in illuminating the subtle nuances of this issue.

Remember, Benazir Bhutto was openly critical of the pre-9/11 Taliban rule and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan? The other parties were not. To understand the difference you have to understand the political choices made by our state during the so-called Afghan Jihad. The fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was overseen by General Zia who had overthrown and hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The party which was displaced could not be in on the joke. Likewise, the ANP stood for a secular if a little left-leaning Afghanistan. So, it could not be either.

But the rest of the parties and the sensibilities in Punjab were shaped by the same war and the same ruler. Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country with over 96 per cent registered Muslims. That bit is a given. But there is a difference between practising something in private and trying to actively export its most combustible and violent version abroad.

While the ideology kept simmering, the policy had already plateaued by the mid-nineties. You can tell because even your most allied ally, China, was complaining about the incursion of such elements. The policy was officially abandoned in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but the ideology supporting it was never properly confronted. Like Afghan Jihad, you have our American benefactors to thank for this one too. The set of demands that Islamabad received and accepted included publicly owning the fight against terrorism without any broad-based consultations with the people. This, when coupled with the fact that the country did not have any active parliament or representative institutions, meant that a great opportunity was lost to build consensus. The country has paid a heavy price since.

In 2014 there came a time when it felt that we might have reached common ground. But the forces that profit from the militarisation of faith got active. And the forces that profited from General Musharraf’s desperate final year in power joined in. Since then everyone has been dismantling that consensus for petty interest. Every good idea has been coopted for their own purposes. The action against jet-black terrorists suddenly became about “economic terrorists” (read corrupt politicians, read again the politicians we don’t like). The idea of the single national curriculum was originally meant to develop a counter-narrative against terrorism and to deradicalise. But in the end, it became a vehicle for perpetuating the same narrative which had driven us to the precipice.

So what is the solution? If Punjab needs surgery should Punjab wield the scalpel? The problem has spread to the parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and even some parts of Sindh. Wherever the militant ideologues and rent-seekers from a dying dictatorship intersect things go murky. But the solution? The solution? Serious dialogue. Whether Punjab wields the scalpel or Sindh, there has to be a serious dialogue with the next rulers about the safeguards to ensure that the gains made in the fight against terrorism will not be reversed. And that the country’s most populous centres can be cured of the militant extremist mindset. The state apparatus needs to ensure that the country has the discipline of a nation-state which resists radicalism in all forms or then explain to its citizens why their best and brightest need to be sacrificed in vain. Your decision on Election Day may decide whether we sink or swim as a nation.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2024.

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