Elections: Pakistan Style

By Shreekant Gupta 

On the crowded and chaotic streets of Rawalpindi, Sheikh Rashid the former federal minister is everywhere.   His corpulent, moustached face looks down at you beatifically from huge billboards and hoardings, from posters dangling from lamp posts and on the back of rickety smoke-belching vehicles.  At some places it is only him and at others he is pictured along with other party candidates.  At roadside tea stalls and in the homes of the elite in Satellite Town and elsewhere, views for and against him are equally vehement.  In the National Assembly elections in 2002, though he won from both Pindi constituencies NA 55 and NA 56, the race seems wide open this time, and he is up against strong ‘noon’ (PML-N) candidates at both places.

Welcome to Pakistan’s noisy and vibrant democracy.  Wait a minute, democracy and Pakistan, isn’t that an oxymoron?  Well, that is what the world believes fed on a staple diet of gloom and doom by a media that is not able to (or wants to) see beyond the bombs.  While think tanks and political pundits sitting in the sanitised confines of conference rooms pontificate on Pakistan’s past, present and future, the 160 million people of that country are engaged in the noisy carnival of democracy.  Having returned from Pakistan a month ago, three days before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, to Singapore where I live and work, I am amazed at the two different worlds.  Here everything is orderly and predictable There, hubbub and a mela-like feel permeates the atmosphere at all times, more so during election time.  The pre-dawn calm is shattered by a cacophony of loudspeakers blaring out the azan and soon the roar of traffic takes over as the city stirs to life.  Not much different from Delhi where too modern gadgets couple with ancient faith to create a unique and heady mix of tradition and modernity.

The reality is Pakistanis are passionate about democracy and its periodic manifestation namely, elections.  Yes, elections have been rigged in past.  And yes, the country has been ruled for half its history by the military.  But has that made the man-on-the-street cynical?  Not by a long shot.  Come to think of it, there is little difference between elections back home in India, and in Pakistan.  Not for us South Asians the genteel, orderly and low-key campaigning of the Europeans or Americans.  Like much else in our part of the world, campaigning is very much in-your-face: posters, banners and hoardings everywhere, cars emblazoned with posters moving in convoys with loudspeakers blaring and oversized party flags fluttering in the wind.  In Pindi and beyond, candidates are discussed threadbare in living rooms and on the streets.  Party workers slog endlessly canvassing for their candidates and organising jalsas.  I am confused.  I ask my think tank colleagues back here, if elections are rigged and the results pre-ordained why is it that the people of Pakistan are engaged in the process with so much gusto?  I do not get a satisfactory answer.

It seems to me truth is never black or white but has shades of gray.  Outcomes aside, the people of Pakistan take naturally to the rough and tumble of electoral democracy as do Indians and other South Asians.  There is something about the electoral process, the free-for-all that it entails, that naturally suits the South Asian spirit.  We are gregarious and extroverted and sociable by nature.  We like public spectacles.  And above all, we like melas.  Elections Pakistan-(ish)tyle, provide an outlet for all of this.

Indeed, this view was recently expressed by Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize winning former South Asia correspondent and senior editor at the Washington Post who now heads the New America Foundation at Washington DC.  According to him the people of Pakistan have always had democratic aspirations and that democracy is as much embedded in Pakistan as it is in India.  Of course, it is a matter of luck and a concatenation of unfortunate circumstances that while we Indians have enjoyed democracy for much of the time since 1947 (except  for 19 months of emergency rule), our brethren across the border have been less fortunate.

Coming back to Pindi and Sheikh Rashid, one evening driving back with the comely daughter of my generous hosts the Abbasis, I said to her “I am sick of seeing this man, his face is everywhere!”  Her pretty face became red with anger and she said, “please don’t say anything against him, he’s my mamu!”  I bit my tongue and stammered out an apology.  But what I learnt later confused me even more.  It turned out that my hostess Zahira apa (Ami as I call her) and her elder sister khala Noor, a former provincial minister are on the other side of the political divide.  Both are die-hard Nawaz Sharif and PML-N loyalists.  While the Sheikh stood as an independent in the last election and then crossed over to ‘qaf’ (PML-Q), the two sisters continued to soldier on in the opposition.  With party allegiances criss-crossing family lines much as in India (the late Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia’s mother was a BJP bigwig), there is family drama in politics as well.

During my stay at Pakistan with the Abbasi household I got a ringside view of the elections.  Ami is contesting a National Assembly seat from Mian saab’s (Nawaz Sharif’s) party, PML-N.  Ami is an amazing woman who effortlessly plays multiple roles from devoted mother and wife to feisty political orator.  She is up at the crack of dawn, says her namaz, makes breakfast for her children and generally breezes through household chores with consummate ease.  Housework done and children despatched to work, Ami is off to her meetings and rallies and speeches.  At night when she returns deadbeat she is an avid watcher of soaps and films on TV.  Like all South Asian mothers she worries about getting her daughter married.  I marvelled at her many transformations from a loving and caring mother bustling in the kitchen dishing out mouth-watering paranthas and kababs, to a fiery orator in election rallies railing against Musharraf and a feisty fighter of police pickets.

One night soon before Nawaz Sharif was to return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia and Ami was all set to go receive him, there was sudden commotion in the house.  A rumour had gone around that the police were rounding up his party activists.  In a flash she was out of the house and on the road to Lahore!  When we next heard from her and khala Noor they were in the thick of a verbal duel with cops at Lahore airport undeterred by their threats and lathis.  Oddly enough, I felt sorry for the hapless cops, little did they realise they were dealing with two human dynamos!

Then there is her son and my friend Israr bhai, a hotshot banker by day and an avid political campaigner by night.  Deeply involved in local politics in his ancestral village near Murree, Israr would go lobbying for support from key figures for his friend’s father who is also contesting on a PML-N ticket.  Truly, a king-maker in the making and a future MNA if I ever saw one!  And finally, there was my constant companion my driver Arif, also from Pindi.  I would frequently quiz him on his political views and by transitivity of those of his extended family.  Two things emerged.  First, he was very much engaged in the whole process like many others, and showed no signs of having switched off.  Second, for him it was sher all the way, (the lion symbol of PML-N, or simply noon, in Urdu) as opposed to the cycle (the symbol of PML-Q, or qaf in Urdu).  What about the Sheikh’s formidable record of being victor in six consecutive elections from the city (he is popularly known as Farzand or the son of Rawalpindi) and of his extensive development work in the constituency, hospitals and such like, I ask.  Arif simply shrugs his shoulders.  In any event, we shall soon know who will win in three weeks’ time.

Some would argue, all this is very well, but what about the post-poll scenario?  As in 2002, will not General saab ensure, through horse trading and other means, that a government of his choice emerges?  To me this scenario seems unlikely for various reasons.  First, unlike 2002, heavyweights from the major opposition parties PPP (Zardari) and PML-N (Nawaz Sharif and his brother) are in the country and the people are more fired up than ever before.  Some of this is due to the shot in the arm civil society received through the agitation over the removal of the Chief Justice and later the imposition of the emergency.  Ironically, attempts to muzzle the media and other institutions of civil society have only strengthened people’s resolve and further galvanised civil society.  Second, scores of foreign observers are in the country for an election that is being conducted under the glare of international media and world attention.  Finally, General saab finds himself in a very different position from that five years ago: he is seriously weakened and his popularity is at an all-time low.  More important, he has publicly committed to free, fair and transparent elections before world leaders.

Having experienced a microcosm of the electoral process in Pakistan all I can say is I came back with hope in my heart.  What will finally happen is difficult to say and (thankfully!) I am no political pundit.  For instance, who could have foreseen the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto?  But the people of Pakistan have shown resilience and a zest for elections that are the lifeblood of democracy.   Watching events unfold from afar, all I can do is wish them well.  As the country and its people move toward their tryst with democracy, in my mind’s eye I see Ami, khala Noor, Israr bhai and Arif and countless others like them, their faith unshaken and their enthusiasm undimmed.  I wish I were there!

30 January 2008

The author is visiting the National University of Singapore on leave from the University of Delhi.  These views are personal. shreekant29@yahoo.com

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