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The return of Imran Khan?

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Things are looking great for Imran Khan; this performance could be considered stellar and a game changer for PTI

The people have given their verdict in a very high stakes by-elections on 20 seats and, in a performance which has stunned both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and experts alike, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has ended up winning 15 seats. In normal times, this would have not been considered a great performance as PTI apparently lost 25% of the seats it had previously won in the previous election.

However, these are not normal times as Hamza Shahbaz’s government’s survival was dependent on winning at least 10 seats, which made the stakes much higher. Secondly, and more importantly, 11 of these seats had been won by independent candidates in the 2018 elections who later joined PTI due to Jehangir Tareen’s personal efforts. In other words, these defectors had their own substantial vote bank in those constituencies and therefore it was expected that PTI would really struggle to win even a handful of these seats.

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The third factor was that in 2018, the Pakistani establishment had actively supported PTI, something which was completely absent this time around. Although the establishment did not create hurdles for PTI, at the same time, the party was basically on its own and fighting an opponent on its own turf who had government machinery at its disposal.

Due to the aforementioned factors, this performance could be considered stellar and a game changer for the party, not only for its immediate prospects in Punjab but also for the next General Elections. The PTI has ended up gaining seats in a real sense. Some political commentators are right when they say that for the first time Imran Khan has truly arrived as a leader and is in a very good position to win the upcoming General Elections. Some are even projecting a two-thirds majority.

So how did this happen? I think the reasons have to do with the interplay between the existing polarisation in society, the nature of Imran’s own support base, the way he was ousted from power, and his narrative which resonated with his base. Additionally, PTI campaigned hard, leveraging its workers as well as its huge social media footprint far more effectively than PML-N. Its leadership was also more engaged than that of PML-N, which at times seemed that it was taking things for granted. Also, the timing of Imran’s ouster proved costly for the PML-N-led government because they had to take tough economic decisions which, though economically essential, proved politically damaging.

Firstly, Pakistani society for the past decade has become very politically polarised, and Imran himself has played an active role in this. When polarisation occurs, the supporters of a particular party start developing intense hatred towards other parties and consequently are more likely to actually go out and vote. PTI’s support base in any case is more like a personality cult than a political party, and therefore much more likely to vote in a polarised and politically charged atmosphere. The way Imran was removed through the no-confidence motion further increased the polarisation by bestowing upon him the status of a “lone warrior”, and allowed him to build a very effective narrative of foreign conspiracy.

This narrative, though completely baseless, allowed him to shift the focus away from glaring economic failures of his three-and-half year’s rule, and frame his core message around patriotism and religion while enabling him to paint his opponents as anti-Pakistan and foreign agents. As already stated, this narrative was baseless, but it nevertheless charged up his own base. Furthermore, to his credit, Imran and his team campaigned very hard, drawing mammoth crowds everywhere he went, whereas PML-N ran a lackluster campaign. The PML-N was also without an effective slogan as “Vote Ko Izzat Do” had now become laughably redundant because of its collaboration with the establishment. Moreover, PTI also leveraged its social media presence brilliantly and flooded various platforms, particularly Twitter, with trends like ‘Imported government unaccepted‘, promoting the main PTI narrative of regime change incessantly. On the other hand, PML-N’s social media presence was not even remotely comparable.

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Secondly, PML-N inherited the reins of government at a time when taking difficult decisions had become inevitable due to an unsustainable current account deficit. A few weeks ago, I had written that it would be better for Shahbaz Sharif to dissolve the government and let a caretaker setup take over so that difficult decisions could be taken. However, much to my surprise, the PML-N led government decided to stay and brave the storm. Initially, Shahbaz had tried his level best to avoid removing the fuel subsidy and increasing the power tariff. Due to the worsening deficit, the dollar continued to slide, raising fears that Pakistan may be heading for a Sri Lanka-like situation where a lack of foreign exchange reserves has resulted in an economic crisis.

Since the revival of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme was the only option in the short run, eventually it yielded and removed the fuel subsidy in three phases and also increased taxes on various necessities in the federal budget. Due to the recency effect, the public (other than the PTI support base also) forgot the inflation and economic mismanagement during Imran’s rule since the present hike in prices felt more painful. The huge increase in the cost of living ended up denting PML-N’s popularity badly and demotivated its own supporters. Since this election was taking place almost immediately after such decisions, the party ended up paying a high penalty.

So, what have we learnt from these by-elections? The first big lesson is that similar to some other countries, Pakistan is also susceptible to effective populist rhetoric by a charismatic leader given a conducive atmosphere. The ousting of Imran before his time provided him that atmosphere in which he was able to propagate his narrative in such a way that his support base got really energised and the public forgot the economic mismanagement during his government.

The second big lesson is that it is better to let a government complete its term. Had Imran been allowed to complete his term, he would have never gotten this conducive atmosphere to weave his narrative so effectively. The third big lesson is that timing matters a lot with respect to taking tough decisions. Even a sensible decision at a bad time can prove to be extremely costly in the eyes of the public. Fourthly, we must take social media very seriously as it is the most effective platform to influence young voters.

After these by-elections, PML-N has lost the majority in Punjab and, barring some exceptional development, Hamza will be removed from his post. With Punjab no longer under its control, it will become exceptionally hard for the federal government of PML-N to survive. Things are looking great for Imran and he looks set to win the elections if they are called now. I may not like what’s happening since I don’t like reactionary politicians like Imran, but I can’t deny that it is happening.

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The systematic persecution of minorities for political mileage

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We are now making it impossible for Ahmadis, who are as much as Pakistanis as all of us, to live in this country.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog on a shameful incident in Faisalabad involving the arrest of three Ahmadi individuals for practicing the Islamic ritual of animal sacrifice, otherwise known as “Qurbani” in Urdu. The incident shocked me for two reasons. First was the sheer inhumanity of arresting someone for an act which is performed by millions in Pakistan. Second, because the said individuals were performing the ritual within the confinement of their own homes, which means technically, they were not violating Section 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which prohibits any person of the Ahmadi sect from calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith. Notwithstanding the draconian nature of the said law, the arrested Ahmadis were not violating it any ways.

Condemning the incident, I wrote,

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“From policing their behaviour in public, we have now started to breach the privacy of their homes and in doing so are forcefully stripping them of their human dignity and respect completely.”

At that point, I thought we had reached the lowest possible level of our moral bankruptcy. Little did I know that when it comes to Ahmadis, both our state and the society have an amazing capacity to constantly outdo all our previous misdeeds.

Since then, two similar incidents have come to surface, which again have left me completely stunned. First, the government of Chaudary Pervaiz Elahi, immediately after taking over Punjab, decided to amend the nikkah nama form by including the clause about belief in finality of Prophethood. Second, in another and even more troubling development, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) leader Malik Ilyas Awan submitted a letter to the deputy commissioner of Khushab, requesting him to take away security from the Ahmadi residents of the region, while also calling for their eviction from Khushab.

While the Eid incident demonstrated bigotry and hatred at the general population level, what makes these two latest developments particularly shocking is involvement of the government. When such steps are taken by the government, then it means that it has abandoned its basic responsibility of provision of safety and protection to all its citizens and has become completely partisan against a minority and in the process increasingly showing traits of a quasi-fascist state.

The updating of nikkah nama is the continuation of the long trend of including such clauses in various government documents. This step was not needed as such since this requirement is already present in many identification documents. Moreover, the Muslim Family Law is not a provincial subject and yet the Punjab government decided to take this step. In my opinion, it does not serve any purpose except to further promote and institutionalise discrimination against Ahmadis for the purpose of extracting political mileage. This was first proposed in March 2022, before the no-confidence motion and even at that time there was criticism from the liberal quarters that the sole purpose of this was nothing but petty political gains.

Now, after “retaking” Punjab, the PTI and PML-Q coalition immediately enacted the bill they had proposed in March. One reason as to why they have done so is that in recent by-elections, which they won convincingly, they played on a religious wicket in order to outflank the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). They were so effective in their campaign of whipping up religion, including the finality of Prophethood issue, that TLP witnessed its share plung to merely 5%. Since the issue of finality of Prophethood is intrinsically linked with Ahmadis, therefore, whenever it is raised for the sake of extracting political mileage, they end up getting victimised.

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Since the coalition had already charged up its base by using this tactic, it has now tried to demonstrate that those had not been just “empty slogans” after taking over. In other words, the coalition has tried to prove its “commitment” to the issue.

Due to recent sloganeering, the issue has gained strength and as a result, the second development, i.e. request from PLM-Q to expel Ahmadis and removal of their security can also be understood in the same context. It is a continuation of the trend in which religion, particularly the issue of finality of Prophethood, is raised, followed by some measure against the already marginalised Ahmadi community.

As I mentioned in my old blog, although all minorities in Pakistan suffer from discrimination, the treatment meted out to Ahmadis is by far the worst. There is what I call “Ahmadi exceptionalism” in Pakistan. And the way things are going, I really don’t see an end to this pattern. I genuinely fear that the tactics used by PTI will now be adopted by other parties such as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and TLP with even greater vigor in the future.

Two years ago, in a piece about the politicisation of the Ahmadi issue, I wrote:

“Academic Sadia Saeed has identified three state responses, each one harsher than the previous, over the Ahmadi issue. First was accommodation, when in 1953 the state curbed anti-Ahmadi agitation; second was exclusion, when the state declared them non-Muslims in 1974; and the third was criminalisation under the Ziaul Haq regime, where anti-Ahmadi ordinances were introduced. The way we are regressing, I am afraid that a fourth one is not far away: ethnic cleansing or forced displacement of Ahmadis from Pakistan.”

I think with these recent developments, the fourth stage has started. We are now creating circumstances where it is impossible for Ahmadis, who are as much as Pakistanis as all of us, to live in this country. In doing so, we are depriving them of even basic human dignity and right to live while we are ourselves are morphing into a bigoted, hate-filled and cruel society.

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May God help and show us the right path which is of kindness and empathy.



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Will Pakistan be able to evade a fate like Sri Lanka’s?

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Poor policies by the ruling party put Sri Lanka in debt default. Pakistan could follow if it doesn’t course-correct.

Sri Lanka is facing serious political, social and economic crises and now the island country is being termed as a ‘state in crises’. Certain factors are responsible for pushing the country into the abyss, but mismanagement on the part of the government tops the list of potential catalysts. It is being speculated that the political instability in Pakistan along with international crises is likely to make the country meet the fate of Sri Lanka.

Taking a look back at Sri Lanka’s growth trajectory reveals that the current scenario did not really emerge out of an unprecedented milieu. In July 2019, the country achieved the status of upper-middle income nations, from the World Bank, but its economy faced serious blows with the spread of the Covid pandemic since the country’s economy is highly dependent on the tourism sector and the pandemic negatively impacted this sector. Then, in the August 2020 elections, the Rajapaksa dynasty took hold of important government offices, including those of the president and the prime minister. The Rajapaksas signed contracts for mega infrastructure projects and spent the country’s reserves this way. The Russia-Ukraine crisis further deteriorated the condition as it led to inflation at an international level and the island nation was not prepared to face this chaos.

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In 2020, the country was downgraded to lower-middle income nations. This happened because the government did not take into account the looming crises and resorted to populist moves to increase the vote bank. Lack of sound economic policies, such as cutting taxes without reducing spending led to fiscal deficit, a condition when government’s expenditure surpasses its revenues in a year. The government also banned the import of chemical fertilizers – an ethnonationalist move – and this caused a serious decline in agricultural production. This poor management by the ruling party got Sri Lanka into debt default which gravely affected the situation of the country with no significant help from international community or other organisations because of economic uncertainty. And Pakistan seems to be facing a similar fate if it doesn’t course-correct.

Turning towards Pakistan, Bloomberg’s Sovereign Debt Vulnerability Ranking, ranked Pakistan fourth on its list of countries with the highest default risk in 2022. The inflation rate in Pakistan is 24.9% while the debt accounts for 71.3% of the total GDP, according to the statistics released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). These figures are quite close to those of Sri Lanka.

Pakistan has a semi-industrial, agro-based economy with about half of employed labour force, and contributes to 24% of the total GDP, according to PBS. Despite this much dependence on the agriculture sector, Pakistan imports wheat, which is the country’s staple food. The recent Russia-Ukraine crisis as well as the climate change debacle caused spike in the prices of certain commodities, including wheat, which caused problems for Pakistani economy. In addition to this, certain populist moves also exacerbated the situation. For instance, when the whole world was facing inflation issues, the government of Pakistan decreased oil prices to give subsidy to citizens in order to win the support of masses, but Pakistan’s economy was not in a position to bear the brunt of this decision.

Pakistan’s economy is dependent upon foreign loans and imports, instead of on locally produced items. This factor often leads to rupee devaluation against the dollar, as country’s imports surpass its exports and cause a hike in the dollar price. The Bloomberg report revealed that severe shortage of US dollar in Pakistan can make the country descend into economic crisis. Also, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves and the foreign currency reserves held by the central bank can only be helpful for two months of imports. During this state of affairs, the only way out for Pakistan is linked with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) disbursement of $7 billion that is to be released in August after the international organisation’s final approval. This will help Pakistan meet its ‘foreign financing needs’, according to Murtaza Syed, Acting Governor of State Bank of Pakistan.

The IMF bailout can provide ephemeral relief to the crippling economy of the country, but proper policy-making is required for long-term sustenance. In the case of Pakistan, the outcome of policy-making seldom meets the needs of the time because of severe political failures. In order to help Pakistan ease its its worsening condition, it is important to pay attention to its policies. Moreover, the scourge of dynastic politics is inflicting the country for decades, and awareness of this plight among masses is necessary to root it out. Furthermore, Pakistan’s youth bulge and women’s participation in the labour force can help improve the country’s economy to a great extent. However, flawed policies and socio-cultural fabric hinder this process which can enhance the human capital of the country. If Pakistan focuses on local production of commodities and works on its human resource, then it is unlikely for the country to become a victim of debt trap.

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The power of literary fiction

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Fiction can help us escape into our own fantasies and also ensures an interaction with those realities we overlook

“But wishes are only granted in fairy tales.”

Simone Elkeles in Perfect chemistry comes up with this perfectly brewed notion, which decidedly can be felt but is unfortunately restricted to what we call ‘fiction’ – that distinctive world we all would’ve imagined back in our childhood. A world populated by the talking crockery in Beauty and the Beast, the wizarding world of Harry Potter, or any of the sublime imaginative creations which exist either in the form of a book or movie. Fiction always plays a vital role in filling one’s mental capacity with diverse characters, subjects and their essence.

The alchemisation of our thought process is a direct consequence of fiction, so we may label it as something which has majestic transformative powers. How? The answer lies within its very structure, the base upon which it stands firm. Let us begin with characters and their characteristics as stated before.

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Though it might seem like a piece of cake to construct characters in a story, for a writer, building strong characters is far more pivotal than the story itself. Their demeanour and the treatment of their abilities requires massive constructive work and contemplation so that they may be able to create empathy among readers. Here lies the crux. This is why I have been stressing over characters being the overriding component of fiction.

When a reader develops cognitive empathy, it makes them able to sneak through lives of fictional figures with astonishingly realistic feelings, allowing a personality refinement of ourselves. This is the very theory nowadays being emphasised by mainstream psychologists to understand the virtues of fiction. I must say, at this point, story acts in quite familiar way in terms of its influence upon us. Writers are one of us, influenced by varying ideologies, cultures and the atmosphere of this world. One would definitely pen down what one sees and scrutinise it.

With different minds having different thought processes, different lives, different perspectives and, above all, distinctive philosophies, this allows them to fill fiction with a fantasy of their own. As a result, we witness angles of reality from their eyes and juxtapose their conclusions with our life philosophy, making us able to identify flaws in a way which makes us constructively criticise ourselves rather than heeding to the scathing remarks people around us propagate.

Fictional worlds have a way of showing situations which may seem different from our world. However, their true essence remains in the social philosophy and rudimentary ethics present in this world. Breaking it down to a simpler definition, fiction, especially the fantasy genre, depicts right and wrong in a quite pleasing way. When curiosity is ignited, people start to think and relate those lessons with real life. For example, the Harry Potter series still shows such basic fundamentals of human life when holistically analysed. Putting aside its fictional elements, a person with such an odd life, without his parents, attaining fame, battling insecurities, but still managing to get through every problem because he is resilient, consistent and brave. Harry has not at all been represented as a protagonist without any flaws or failures. Instead, he has some extremely extraordinary but pragmatic qualities to ensure his success despite his vulnerabilities.

How this representation impacts our mentality is not hard to determine. Living in a world full of problems and failures, this type of escapism containing such life lessons could easily benfit us. Another distinction which has been represented in fiction is the difference between right and wrong. A story specifically wrought out to show the victory of truth is a real treat, making us believe that truth always triumphs.

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Jane Austen delineating the power of love in each of her fictional works, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky propagating the dilemma of right and wrong in his distinctive literary works would have a certain impact on our mind. Thus, fiction successfully works as a remedy to our mind, encompassing our thoughts, and giving us a sense of relief and refinement. From children to adults, all of us can experience this if we indulge ourselves in these worlds. Fiction can not only help us escape into our own fantasies but also ensures an interaction with those realities of life we often overlook due to fear and doubt.



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