Monday, August 7, 2017

Business Recorder Column Aug 7, 2017

Politics in the time of 62/63 Rashed Rahman A disturbing exacerbation of the trend towards unsubstantiated accusations, allegations and downright abuse against political opponents has been witnessed since the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. A flawed but still relatively civil political culture that has been the hallmark of the Pakistani polity despite the fraught and tragic history of the country stands threatened with obliteration. The trend started with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) rise since 2011. Not only did Imran Khan and other leaders and spokesmen of the party adopt this new uncivilised and downright rude behaviour, their trolls on the social media have by now raised it to a ‘fine’ art. The PTI’s main rival parties, PML-N and PPP, had hitherto refrained from descending to the same level. That restraint, particularly in the case of the PML-N, appears to be fraying. The ability of the mainstream media to frame issues with context and objectivity has fallen victim to the ratings race (in the case of the electronic media) and to the self-censorship adopted by the media as a whole. The officially certified truth, which independent media looked at askance and critically in the past, appears to rule the roost and arguably serves the purposes of powerful state institutions that are not answerable to the people. The biggest victims of the rudeness and abuse proliferating in society generally and the mainstream and social media in particular are women. Perhaps this does not come as a surprise to informed observers and human and gender rights activists. MNA Ayesha Gulalai, formerly of the PTI, has been roundly abused, threatened, and painted as a tool of the PML-N after she revealed that Imran Khan had sent her inappropriate text messages that constitute sexual harassment. In the storm of abuse and threats to her and her family, the more important revelations about the PTI’s political culture and alleged corruption in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where the party is in power got drowned out. Ayesha Gulalai’s three main criticisms of the PTI’s culture were: (1) ill treatment and under representation of women; (2) Imran Khan’s intra-party favouritism, and (3) rampant corruption by KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and central leader Jahangir Tareen. In a move decried by the PTI as a partisan moral witch-hunt against Imran Khan, newly elected Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi suggested on the floor of the National Assembly that a parliamentary commission should be set up to address Gulalai’s accusations against Imran Khan. That idea was at first rejected by the PTI, but later seems to have been grudgingly accepted so as not to seem disrespectful of parliament (not a new charge against the PTI). The commission has been announced with 20 members, 13 from the treasury benches and seven from the opposition. Imran Khan and PTI spokesmen continue to crib about such a body not being credible as it is stacked with their opponents. Had the parliamentary commission also addressed the other, main accusations of Ayesha Gulalai, it would perhaps have enhanced its status and credibility. The re-emergence of Ms Ayesha Ahad with damaging accusations against Hamza Shahbaz Sharif of marrying her under false pretences and then dumping her and subjecting her to brutal treatment just after Ayesha Gulalai’s j’accuse against Imran Khan and the PTI, raised similar conspiracy theories as ascribed to the previous accuser. If Ayesha Gulalai was castigated by the PTI as a tool of the PML-N, Ayesha Ahad is being trashed as the PTI’s counter-stroke to discredit Hamza Shahbaz. In the process, irrespective of whether both women are truthful or not, a storm of misogyny and dirtying women in general and these two in particular has broken out. This reflects the obvious male chauvinist culture that still dominates our society. But it also hits at women in public life, professions and politics on the basest foundations. In a civilised society and functional justice system, both sets of accusations could have been tackled by libel and defamation laws. In Pakistan, however, such laws are weak and given the dysfunctional crisis of our judicial system, impossible to redress through the courts. Hence the worthies across the political divide who have sprung to the defence of their respective leaders have had recourse to the most vile and contemptuous attitude towards women. A democratic polity requires restraint and politeness even when critiquing or attacking one’s political opponents. Now that the floodgates of abuse of opponents and rivals have been thrown open, there is no telling what the eventual fallout for the democracy project will be. On balance, the PPP has shown the most restraint and maturity of the three main parties. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has pointed to the damaging effect of such language and behaviour towards political rivals in a still weak democracy attempting to find solid foundations. Our older and more experienced politicians could do worse than pay heed to these wise words from a relatively young head. The free-for-all that our political discourse has descended into, with copious helpings of abuse on top, has the potential to dangerously unsettle our political landscape. On the eve of Nawaz Sharif’s triumphal march down the GT Road from Islamabad to Lahore tomorrow, amidst fears of PML-N-PTI workers’ clashes en route, it may be useful to draw some lessons from the experience of an elected PML-N government facing from day one a hostile PTI intent on capturing power (by hook or by crook, it is alleged by its detractors). The biggest mistakes of Nawaz Sharif over his four year incumbency were to ignore his own real strength, i.e. parliament, and ignoring and therefore self-isolating himself from his staunchest erstwhile support, the PPP. Only now, when he has been shown the door by the Supreme Court under Article 62(1)(f) has he voiced ‘nostalgia’ for the Charter of Democracy. The Charter attempted to address, on Benazir Bhutto’s initiative, the problem that had bedeviled democracy in the 1990s. Rival parties turned repeatedly to unelected power centres to topple their rivals. The political class (or at least that section of it that still adheres to democracy as the only way forward to a stable polity), must relearn the lesson that when rivals transcend parliamentary and democratic norms, i.e. attempt to do down their rivals in a no-holds-barred manner, the only beneficiary is the deep state. In what may come increasingly to be defined as ‘politics in the time of Articles 62/63’ (given the incremental falling back by every Tom, Dick and Harry on these hangovers of General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship after the Supreme Court’s verdict), the political class needs to revisit the rules of political contention a la Charter of Democracy to keep the subverters of the democracy project at bay.

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