This is the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian democratic transfer of power via elections is taking place without either a military or judicial coup or intervention. This is a momentous occasion for not only Pakistan but for its neighbours as well. There has been a lot of talk about whether or not these elections will change Pakistan’s direction, both internally as well as in the foreign policy arena. But first, there is a need to take a step back and put these elections in perspective.
Let us start with a widely held assumption that the presence of a large youth vote-bank will bring about positive change in Pakistan, and will thus be good for India. In this context, it is important to note that in a recent British Council (Pakistan) survey, more than one-third of young Pakistanis supported Islamic sharia as a form of government and another one-third were in favour of military rule. Further, the majority of young Pakistanis, both men and women, defined themselves as religiously conservative. A survey conducted by the same British Council in 2009 had shown that 75 per cent of young Pakistanis defined themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second.
As have I explained earlier in a book, the desire for maintaining distinctiveness from India—“escaping India”—led to the crafting of a Pakistani national ideology which necessitated the use of Islam and Muslim distinctiveness. Over the years, the idea that Pakistan was founded on the basis of an ideology, which the Pakistani state had to implement and safeguard, was put forth by both civilian and military leaders. According to Pakistan’s first military ruler General Ayub Khan, Islam was the principal ideology of Pakistan and subsequent military leaders from Zia to Kayani have echoed these views. A few weeks ago, while addressing cadets at the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Kayani asserted : “Let me remind you that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never ever be taken out of Pakistan.”
The current elections have brought to the fore how deeply rooted is the legacy of the stateled Islamisation which gained maximum steam under Pakistan’s third military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq.
Not only are decades-old laws now being implemented for the first time but electoral officers have taken it upon themselves to decide who in their opinion is or isn’t a “good” Muslim. Since rigging of ballots and forcibly preventing people from voting is difficult today, disqualifying candidates on grounds of religion is the easy way out. This has often made the news in the last few weeks.
This also begs the question: why were these laws never rescinded even though Pakistan was under civilian rule during the 1990s and also between 2008-2013. The answer lies in the growing radicalisation of Pakistani society and the legacy of its educational curriculum.
What has happened over the decades in Pakistan is the crafting of a national narrative and view of history, which does not always conform to historic facts. Those who hold higher ranks within the civil service, military, academia and media have been subjected to years of indoctrination through this educational curriculum (especially ‘Pakistan Studies’ and religious studies, or ‘Islamiyat’). It must also be noted that this ideology-based narrative was championed and believed in equally by the secular as well as religious elements in Pakistani society. Consider how the ‘Pakistan Studies’ curriculum, which lays out a certain lopsided history of Pakistan, is taught in secular schools and not in religious establishments.
The media, which even many in Pakistan consider a good watchdog and conscience of the public, has contributed to the problem. In the case of Pakistan, the media is free but it is yet to be seen as fair. The Urdu-language media is Islamist, anti-Indian and anti-Western (especially anti-American ) as well as hugely conspiracy ridden. Its champions are people like Majid Nizami, who runs The Nation-Nawa I Waqt group, and who has publicly offered to be “tied to a nuclear bomb” and get “dropped on India” if that would help get back Kashmir for Pakistan.
Besides, the outspokenness of the judiciary in the last few years would be considered a positive if only it did not seem that the higher judiciary wanted to arrogate to itself legitimate powers of the executive and legislature. Further, the rising tendency of judicial officials to cite from religious texts and not from legal precedence is worrying. Finally, while the lawyers movement of a few years ago may have helped bring down a military ruler, the very same fraternity came out in large numbers to shower petals on the Islamist killer of former governor of Pakistani Punjab, Salman Taseer.
Finally, let us turn to the Pakistani militaryintelligence establishment, which has always preferred ‘managed rule’ to democracy, whether it was Ayub’s Basic Democrats in the 1960s or Musharraf’s Enlightened Moderation in the 2000s. Where outright coup has not been feasible or desirable, the establishment has preferred ruling from behind, as witnessed during the 1990s and also, in many ways, since 2008. What the last five years have demonstrated is that irrespective of which coalition government comes to power, the Pakistani establishment—by which I mean Pakistan’s military-intelligence-technocratic-judicial establishment—will continue to frame Pakistan’s foreign and security policies and have a big say even in domestic politics.
Almost on a daily basis one learns of attacks and bombings in Pakistan, most of which target the secular or left-of-center political parties. Islamist radical groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan have often taken credit for these attacks. The aim of these attacks, suicide bombings and killings is to try to limit the electoral playing field to those parties and candidates who fall within and hold certain shades of Islamist views acceptable to these jihadi groups. That is why it is important to note that the majority of attacks have been on parties like Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Quami Mahaz (MQM) and not the religious parties, Jamaat e Islami or Jamiat e Ulema e Islam or Imran Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).
It is true that these elections in Pakistan are being held under the sword of the Taliban, as many Pakistanis have asserted, but the real threat to these elections and to Pakistan’s future is not simply from the jihadi groups but stems from the ideology that has created and sustained them.