Minorities in a Naya Pakistan

The following article was published in The Hindu. The author, Ayesha Siddiqa, is a commentator based in Islamabad and author of  Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy

Naya Pakistan is the new buzzword in the country. It is the campaign slogan of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and it speaks to those who are seeking not only a new leadership but also new Pakistan. There is an expectation that with this election must come a Pakistani renewal that would be more in keeping with the original promise of Partition, instead of the present corruption, poor governance and the absence of any sense of security. Many see the country suffering from the burden of an inept leadership and an expensive partnership with the United States in its war on terror, and believe Pakistan has paid too high a price for this. In the past few years, the media seems to have put the burden of both internal mismanagement and skewed external relations on the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. With new leaders like Imran Khan on the horizon, it is believed that a positive change is in the offing. Although it is not clear that Mr. Khan will be the ultimate winner in the elections, it is taken for granted that the new 40 million votes added to the voters’ list, including those of the youth, will favour the cricketer-turned-politician.

Turnout uncertain

However, there is a lot of uncertainty underlying the change mantra. Given the fact that the voter turnout in past elections was low, it is still not certain how many will show up for the election today. In provinces like Balochistan, the voter turnout in the 2008 election was as low as 20 per cent. Countrywide voter demotivation could get compounded by the threats being issued by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has warned people, especially in the tribal areas and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, against going anywhere near a voting booth. Thus far, there have been numerous murderous attacks by the TTP against the previous ruling combine of the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National Party, and the Muttahida Quami Movement, targeting its leaders, candidates and campaign rallies. The TTP has declared these parties liberal-secular and thus deserving of its ire. The irony of course is that none of the three parties challenged terrorism and radicalism in the country despite being in power for five years.

Even if voters overcome these challenges to come out and vote, there is no evidence yet that a Pakistan under a different leadership can bring about the sort of renewal that is required for the task of nation-building. Nowhere is this more evident than in the attitude of political parties to the religious minorities. There are 2.9 million non-Muslims in the country formally registered with the National Database and Registration Authority. Of this, the biggest number is of Hindus (approx 1.4 million), followed by Christians (1.2 million), and then others which include Ahmedis, Zorastrian, Bahai, Sikh, Buddhist and even a handful of Jews.

Pakistan, which opted for separate electorates for its minority communities at the time of Partition, took the decision to integrate these communities in the political mainstream by abolishing that system in 2002. But in other ways, the process of integration of the minorities has been non-existent and, thanks to the overall ideological-political climate in the country, the attitude towards them is one of violent intolerance.

After many such incidents of violence targeting them and their mosques, the Ahmedis, for instance, are feeling more ostracised and threatened than before by the growing latent-radicalism in the country. The community was declared non-Muslim by the Bhutto government in 1974. Mainly concentrated in Central Punjab, the Ahmedis have opted to boycott these elections as none of the political parties seems to heed their concerns.

Earlier in the campaign, Imran Khan, who spoke about changing Pakistan from his hospital bed after his fall this week, issued a formal press statement contradicting the video footage about the party’s plan to revisit the law declaring Ahmedis non-Muslims. The video clip had gone viral on social media and the ensuing controversy forced Imran Khan to make the statement that he believed in the finality of Prophet Muhammad. But shockingly, he went on to add that no one from his party had sought Ahmedi votes. More than anything else, that declaration raises worrying questions about a national party’s agenda. Notwithstanding differences on interpretation of faith, the right of Ahmedis to life and inclusion in politics has to be ensured. It is also interesting that Imran Khan used the term ‘Qadiyani,’ which the Ahmedis in Pakistan consider derogatory.

The situation in relation to other political parties is not encouraging either. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which is trying to maintain control of the largest province of the country, is entrenched in an electoral partnership with the defunct militant Deobandi organisation, Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), that is contesting elections under the title of Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The party’s rabidly fundamentalist posturing in Punjab does not bode well for the Ahmedis, or for the Shia community. In these last few months, the Shia community has been violently targeted in different parts of the country, especially in Balochistan, by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offspring of the SSP. The Shias are not a minority, but their relentless targeting is a result of the mainstreaming of Deobandi and Wahabi discourse in society and politics in general.

Misuse of blasphemy law

The Christian community is not happy either. In the past five years, there was a noticeable increase in the number of attacks on Christians using the blasphemy law. The Zia-era legislation condemns anyone guilty of blaspheming against the Prophet of Islam to death. The law is frequently manipulated to settle personal scores and disputes over land, especially by land mafias that are spread across the country. Some ministers of the PML-N were allegedly behind some of the attacks.

A similar situation seems to prevail in Sindh where Hindus feel increasingly insecure and abandoned like everyone else by what was once Bhutto’s party. Many PPP candidates are wealthy land-owning wadheras; some of them have well-known links with criminal gangs and militant outfits. The Hindus of Sindh will probably vote pragmatically for the PPP in areas dominated by the party, not out of loyalty, but to safeguard their interests and buy security, seriously deficient in Sindh.

Unlike the Hindus in South Punjab who mainly consist of the scheduled castes, the Sindhi Hindus include castes that are more affluent. They dominate business and industry in rural Sindh but consider themselves a threatened species primarily due to the abysmal economic and security conditions in the province. In upper Sindh, they say that the banyas dare not even show off their wealth for fear of attracting unwelcome attention, usually in the form of kidnappings for ransom. The overall increase in poverty and poor governance in the province have raised ordinary people’s threshold as far as crimes against rich Hindus are concerned. No one is outraged if some of their wealth gets stolen or extorted.

A bigger concern for Sindhi Hindus in recent years pertains to forced conversion of upper caste Hindu girls to Islam. Their economic influence has not translated into sufficient political clout to generate support among the political elite of Sindh to solve this particular grievance.

Wadhera-mullah combine

The lack of political engagement does not help counter the influence of religious wadheras or the wadhera-mullah combine which is now increasingly behind the conversion issue. It was in 2012, for example, that the conversion scandal involving a pir of the Bharchundi shrine became public. Mian Mithu, as he was popularly known, was also a PPP member of the National Assembly. He was instrumental in converting a local Hindu girl, Rinkle Kumari, to Islam after one of his men facilitated her abduction and then married her off to a boy she allegedly had an affair with. As Rinkle’s Talraja caste has some influence in Ghotki and adjoining Dharki, where it even has a huge shrine of Sacho Satram Das, the PPP eventually abandoned Mian Mithu.

Pakistan’s renowned Sindhi playwright, Noor-ul-Huda Shah, believes that there is a tendency to treat conversions, especially of upper caste girls such as Rinkle Kumari, as a trophy. The pride in converting upper caste Hindu girls could also be linked with the gradual spread of militant organisations like the SSP, JeM and LeT in interior Sindh. Piggybacking on the shoulders of the religious party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the various militant outfits are said to be engaged in several cases of violence including the killing of three Hindu boys in Khairpur who were suspected of involvement with Muslim girls.

The efforts made by some Hindus in the last couple of years to migrate to India caught media attention. Though most people in the community still consider Pakistan their country and would not leave, political parties have paid scant attention to their problems.

For the minorities in Pakistan, the biggest question is whether this election will help them negotiate their safety and security in a society and polity increasingly drifting towards the right wing. So far, no political party has had the courage to provide a reassuring answer.

 

Elections prove democracy maturing

electionsLast week’s by polls and Senate elections demonstrated that democracy in Pakistan is maturing.

Both sets of elections were carried out with relatively little controversy compared to past elections. During the by polls, there was the tragic incident of PTI supporters opening fire on PPP workers celebrating a victory in Multan, the confusion over NA-140 results, and of course the case of Waheeda Shah’s slapping an APO. But isn’t it a positive trajectory if we have entered a phase in our democracy when the most controversial incident is a mere slap?

The Senate elections too went off without much incident. Despite accusations of some that there was massive horse trading and deal making the affected the outcome, the results paint a different picture. PPP’s diehard activist Aslam Gill lost what was supposed to be a secure Senate seat from Punjab. Sure some secret conspiracy to rig the outcome of elections would have prevented such a result. Actually, Gill’s loss is hard evidence that the polls went off more fairly than in the past, as were reports that PML-N’s position was strengthened by the results as well.

Most importantly, though, the elections happened. Despite all the doomsday predictions of coups and Parties fielded candidates, organised their supporters, and officials were elected according to the process defined in the Constitution. By all accounts, there was no major interference from agencies or institutions and a democratically elected Senate is in place through 2015. Calls for boycotting the by polls went ignored by the masses demonstrating that they are more interested in leaders who are willing to work towards real solutions than those who know nothing but protest politics.

With this, the stage is set for the next general elections in which the masses will once again make their way to the ballot box and the nation is preparing, for the first time in our history, to transfer power from one democratically-elected government to the next.

The elections in 2008 were not flawless, but they were the beginning of a new era. Since that historic shift, we have seen each following election carried out with fewer incidents and less controversies. Regardless of which party each voter supports, it is clear that that is overwhelming support for the democratic process. And with that, we all win.

PTI’s New Election Strategy Same as Old Election Strategy

Imran KhanPTI has never managed to do well in the polls. In the 15 years since Imran Khan began his one man political show, the only seat his party has ever managed to win was Imran’s. In 2008, PTI didn’t even bother to compete in elections. But the past few months have seen the rise of Imran’s “tsunami”, and hundreds of thousands of supporters turning out to free concerts rallies across the country. But while PTI seems to have figured out a winning marketing strategy, it’s still clinging to the same old failed election strategy of the past.

Sitting on the Sidelines

The first glimpse of the PTI “tsunami” is coming up in by seven upcoming by-polls. According to a report in Dawn, the strategy is the same as in 2008 – sit on the sidelines and complain.

In by-polls for five National and two Punjab assemblies’ seats to be held on Feb 25, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) being a silent spectator is likely to lose the ground once held by its leaders.

Of the seven by-poll seats, four National and one Punjab assemblies’ seats were held by PTI leaders who vacated them to join hands with Imran Khan, chairman of the PTI. Later, as the PTI made a policy not to take part in by-polls, the former parliamentarians are in a fix either to stay away from the process or support their traditional rivals.

Dynasty Denied

One of Imran Khan’s PTI Vice-Chairman Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi wants his son to inherit his old National Assembly seat (NA-148). Imran Khan didn’t think he could cover up for such blatant dynastic politics, though, and rejected the idea. Rather than suggest a ‘clean’ politician for the seat, though, PTI is preparing to run…nobody. According to Dawn, “Mr Qureshi wants his supporters not to vote in by-polls”. I guess SMQ thinks that if his son can’t inherit his old seat, nobody should have it.

All Kings and No Soldiers

The dilemma with NA-148 is an extreme example, but it is also indicative of a larger problem in PTI. With the induction of big wigs from other parties, PTI has been plagued with the problem of having too many ‘Kings’ and not enough soldiers. Take former PML-N leader Javed Hashmi. He jumped on the PTI bandwagon in December after feeling that the Sharifs ignored his desire for advancement.

Of course, Javed Hashmi is not the only political big wig to switch to PTI in hopes of a promotion. This has caused all manner of jealousy and infighting among the PTI ranks, even causing Imran to announce that he’s going to have to dissolve the whole organisation so that he can come up with a new structure that pleases everyone. Oh, and this new party structure, “will not be elected but carefully selected”.

Perhaps no greater example of the impending problem, however, is NA-140 where two PTI big wigs are actually supporting opposing candidates – neither of them representing PTI. Of course, this is just a taste of what’s to come once the general elections are scheduled.

Both Ali and Kasuri recently joined the PTI and were aspiring to contest the next general election from the NA-140 constituency from where they contested the last general election from PPP and PML-Q platforms, respectively

Luckily, PTI already has a strategy for this type of problem – nobody runs and everyone can complain about how unfair elections are.

Bad Omen

Ultimately, whether or not PTI has a losing election strategy is not only something that should concern PTI supporters. As I noted, PTI does is good at marketing and they have managed to attract a lot of new supporters lately – that can’t be ignored. But we should ask ourselves this: If Imran Khan can’t even manage his own party during elections, how is he supposed to manage a government where he doesn’t get to reinvent the entire structure and ‘carefully select’ the players each time things go wrong? Is he going to follow in the footsteps of his political mentor Gen Zia-ul-Haq and persecute opposition members rather than try to find common ground with them?

Mainstream political leaders like Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, Fazl-ur-Rehman, and Altaf Hussain are often disparaged by Imran Khan because they make deals and compromises. But that’s how politics works in a democracy. There’s no supreme leader who gets to ‘carefully select’ whoever he wants and ignore or imprison those who disagree with him.

It remains to be seen whether PTI can translate Facebook fans into votes. Imran Khan’s ‘tsunami’ may be more hype than reality, but many sober analysts do believe that PTI has the opportunity steal several seats from PML-N in Punjab during the next elections. Of course, even this possibility requires Imran Khan to get his party in order and to develop a better election strategy than he’s had in the past. So far, it’s not looking promising.

Want the economy to improve? Defend democracy.

As political season gets into full swing, one of the top issues is certainly the weak economic growth that the country has been suffering. Obviously there are many reasons why the economy has sputtered instead of taking off, but one important reason in particular is being overlooked. Arif Habib Group Chairman and CEO Arif Habib warned this week that economic growth is suffering due to negative perception of the country by foreign investors.

Speaking at a reception held in his honour by Ruhi Farzana Shafi, he said that “our capital markets are one of the best in the world providing 31 percent average return in the last 10 years, but it has been marred by image issues.”

Over 100 foreign investors left after Islamabad blast.

Image issues? What issues could possibly mar our image with foreign investors? Could it be the image of two government officials – a governor and a cabinet minister – being assassinated for standing up for minority rights? Could it be the image of lawyers throwing flowers at confessed assassin Mumtaz Qadri? Could it be the fact that Osama bin Laden was found living outside Kakul? Perhaps. And perhaps instead of ignoring this growing threat, the judicary should take notice and put militants in jail rather than allowing them to go around shooting up the streets.
Or perhaps it could be the never ending stream of cynical media reports and political slogans terming the government elected by the people as the most corrupt, incompetent rulers. Or the media predictions that the government will fall any day now. Perhaps it is the statements of anonymous military spokesmen who claim that Army is using the judiciary to unseat a democratically elected president.

Could it be that the ‘image issues’ we have come from the fact that in the modern media age, all of our political hyperbole, constant complaining, and drawing room gossip is now available for the whole world to see? And maybe, just maybe, foreign investors don’t want to risk their money in a nation that can’t hold two elections in a row? Actually, there may be something to this.

According to research by economist Ishrat Husain published in the Columbia Journal of International Affairs, political instability – or the expectation of it – is a key obstacle to economic growth in Pakistan.

The tour d’horizon of the past sixty years of Pakistan’s economic history lends credence to the argument that interruptions to the orderly political process whereby elected governments were dismissed, forced to resign or overthrown further accentuated the tendency of risk aversion. Besieged with a feeling of uncertainty over their future, elected representatives have indulged in distribution of patronage to their supporters as well as to self-enrichment. Both the preoccupation with keeping power—applied to both the military rulers and the elected regimes—and fending off attacks from the opposition by co-opting them through state patronage or by coercion has led to laxity in fiscal and monetary policies and to the concentration of economic and political power. The excessive use of discretion in case-by-case policymaking to favor narrow interest groups has derailed institutionalized decision-making based on well-established rules and transparency in transactions.

The solution, Ishrat Husain says, is obvious:

The lesson to be learned from this experience is quite obvious but worth repeating. Democracy, with such flaws and shortcomings as corruption and patronage, may cause economic disruptions and slow down development in the short-term. But it should be allowed to run its course as the inherent process of fresh leadership and governmental accountability through new elections provides a built-in stability to the system that eventually brings the economy back to equilibrium. Interruptions to the democratic process in the name of economic efficiency have created more problems than solutions in Pakistan.

With Senate elections only three months away, and general elections soon to follow, derailing the democratic process would be gratuitous and self-defeating at this point. Whatever might be gained by installing this mythical government of selfless technocrats would be more then undone by the demonstration of impatience and unwillingness to abide by the rule of law.

If the people want to change who’s in office, let them choose so with their ballot. Economies don’t turn around overnight. If we want the economy to improve, we should elect those who we believe have the best policies to improve it and give them a chance to do so without terming them a failure before they can even start.

Strange outcome of ECP’s dual standard

ballots

ECP has barred dual nationality holders from contesting elections, it was reported today. ECP has also declared that it is re-considering a proposal expanding the right to vote to people who aren’t Pakistani nationals.

The strange outcome of ECP’s dual standard, obviously, will be that people who don’t live in Pakistan and have no intention of ever living here can decide elections, but people who actually live here can’t contest elections.