Of change and alternatives

Sunday, October 30, saw two rallies in Pakistan’s two largest cities. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) held a huge rally in Karachi, which was dubbed ‘Democracy and Stability of Pakistan Rally’. That a party known for its opportunism and supporting military dictatorships came out on the street in support of democracy is ironic. The MQM, along with a delegation from the PPP, protested against Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s derogatory language against President Zardari at a PML-N rally in Lahore the other day. MQM chief Altaf Hussain addressed the rally from London and attacked the PML-N and the Sharif brothers. The language Shahbaz Sharif used against the president is condemnable, but expecting principled politics from the MQM that has quit the PPP’s coalition government on several occasions in the past three years can hardly be taken seriously.

Lahore also witnessed a rally on Sunday. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) rally was held at Minar-e-Pakistan, the symbolism of the location not being lost on anyone. It was a massive rally with over 100,000 people who came to show their support for PTI chief Imran Khan. That the PTI managed to attract one of the biggest crowds in Lahore in over two decades – over a million people came to Benazir Bhutto’s rally in Lahore back in 1986 – without the help of any government machinery must be recognised. It goes to prove that the people of Pakistan are disillusioned and fed up with the political class across the board. In reaction to the void created by the ruling incumbents, the people are looking for change. Anybody who comes along and seems to give a different message is bound to gain some traction. It is not so much that the things Imran Khan is saying are resonating with the people but the fact that he presents a possible alternative to the dreary spectrum in the next elections. Add personal charisma and hero worship and Imran Khan comes out as a seemingly ideal candidate for ‘change’.

Mr Khan’s speech started with attacks against President Zardari and the Sharif brothers. His repetition of the false story pertaining to Ambassador Husain Haqqani about a nonexistent letter was uncalled for. Mr Khan should not bend facts to suit his case. On the domestic front, Mr Khan’s politics revolves around mainly two issues: elimination of corruption and systemic administrative structural change. Even if Mr Khan somehow manages to end corruption, is there any guarantee that the existing system will not regenerate it? How the PTI intends to save our economy is something that is virtually conspicuous by its absence in its programme. Mr Khan talked about the patwari (land record officer) system and the thana (police station) culture, but provided only half-baked solutions. Giving superficial solutions is a sign that Mr Khan has failed to recognise the actual depth of the problem. He needs to come up with better plans. Once again Mr Khan talked about reconciliation with the Taliban. He needs to be reminded that more powerful people and forces have tried this policy and failed. How can we expect those who kill and maim innocents for their fanatical objectives to think rationally?

Imran Khan talked about the rights of the Baloch and ending the ongoing military operation in Balochistan. How he plans to persuade the army and the FC to end their kill and dump policy is anyone’s guess. While he talked of educating women and the rights of minorities, he did not talk about the discriminatory laws that are loaded against women and religious minorities. He also failed to talk about the persecution of the Ahmedis and sectarian conflict. Mr Khan’s main targets were the politicians. By keeping quiet about the military’s role in Pakistani politics and the consequent mess we are in today, Mr Khan has certainly aroused suspicion. Many believe he has the blessings of the establishment.

The jury is still out on whether to call the success of PTI’s rally a game changer or not. PTI lacks the required party machinery and electable candidates. Mr Khan also made some tall claims, such as calling for civil disobedience and shutting down the cities if the politicians in power do not reveal the full extent of their wealth, but on this he may well be tested in the coming months. While the successful rally has added weight to Imran Khan’s political standing, the next general elections will show whether the PTI is able to translate a successful rally into parliamentary strength.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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