During the ongoing political crisis in Pakistan, there has been a great deal of energetic debate on the role of PTI as a political actor. Some see it as a standard-bearer of truth and justice, others as a disaster for the country and its norms. I think the PTI has played both positive and negative roles, which I will explain below. Unfortunately, after the recent events, their negative role has completely swamped the positive, and the PTI in its current mode poses a grave danger to Pakistani society.
PTI’s positive contribution is that, after decades of political stagnation and national despair, it brought dynamism, a sense of national purpose, and hope to the people of Pakistan — especially to the middle-classes. For a nation in the grip of decades of hopelessness, this was a tremendous achievement and promised to change the country for the better. Unfortunately, instead of building on this surge of hopeful engagement, the whole thing became infected with the ambition and arrogance of its founder, who turned his movement into a cult of personality and, in order to achieve power, allied with exactly those forces that he had blamed previously for the country’s problems.
The PTI was certainly not the first party to inject vulgarity and hate into Pakistani politics, but, in the past, it remained confined to a few individuals and to private encounters. Now, thanks to social media, that toxic culture has infected our entire society and is eating away at the social fabric of Pakistan.
Now for the negative contributions, of which there are many. Two, in particular, stand out to me. First, the PTI has fostered a culture of unprecedented vulgarity that has destroyed our centuries-old traditions of civility and respect. The PTI was certainly not the first party to inject vulgarity and hate into Pakistani politics, but, in the past, it remained confined to a few individuals and to private encounters. Now, thanks to social media, that toxic culture has infected our entire society and is eating away at the social fabric of Pakistan.
The second issue is that, by putting all its emphasis on corruption, the PTI has convinced people that this is the central problem of Pakistan, and that solving it will fix everything else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, corruption is a very significant problem, but it is pervasive, diverse, and non-specific: There are a thousand kinds of corruption and it’s impossible to chase after all of them. There are much more specific core problems that, if addressed, will also reduce corruption, or at least create space for a less corrupt system to emerge. Some examples of these problems are — not in any particular order:
- A taxation system that is designed to perpetually enrich a small elite and prevent the country from ever becoming a functioning economy that can provide basic services to everyone.
- An unequal rule of law with wanton disregard for civil rights and human rights by those in power.
- A dismal and unequal educational system that leaves the vast majority of children behind, and even for those it does serve, provides only superficial training rather than a true education.
- A society that, in opposition to all modern societies, insists on regressing towards greater religious intolerance and obscurantism, actively discouraging critical thought and open debate.
- As a corollary to 4, a turning away from rational ideas and evidence-based decision-making in favour of ideological and emotional choices.
- A budget with ridiculously unbalanced and impractical priorities such as minimal support for education and a huge defense budget.
- A complete lack of any coherent and comprehensive national socioeconomic strategy that would force the elite to make hard choices. For example, asking whether the stuff Pakistan makes and grows is the best use of its resources.
- An unsustainable and uncontrolled population growth rate — especially in the poorest segments of society.
- The looming existential threat of climate change that, over the next 30 years, will seriously disrupt the systems that the country relies on for everything — above all, water. What will happen to Pakistan when snow caps decrease, rivers dry up, and monsoons fail? Just planting more trees is not going to solve these problems. It will need careful long-term planning and a focus on science and technology, but most of the country seems to believe that piety and prayer will ultimately fix everything.
- Almost universal ignorance of history, suspicion of diverse ideas, and aversion to alternative ways of thinking. These force society into making bad choices, blind it to possible solutions, and make it susceptible to crazy conspiracy theories that are so rampant in Pakistan today.
Was PTI addressing any of these problems? Hardly at all. Will any other government do so? Not likely. Societies take decades to turn around, but no leader in Pakistan is willing to think beyond the next election, or to focus on building institutions rather than personal power-bases.
The list can go on. Was PTI addressing any of these problems? Hardly at all. Will any other government do so? Not likely. Societies take decades to turn around, but no leader in Pakistan is willing to think beyond the next election, or to focus on building institutions rather than personal power-bases.
Finally, I say that the PTI in its current mode is a danger to Pakistan because – in its hyper-nationalism, its worship of the leader, its abusive denigration of political opponents and even their families, its labelling of all disagreement as treasonous, its focus on ends at the expense of means, and its pervasive use of misinformation and propaganda through social media – it is flirting with fascism, and even the most corrupt democracy is a thousand times better than a fascistic government that promises greatness but delivers only dysfunction and conflict. Societies fail to learn that lesson at their peril.
In the 1920s, Iqbal, commenting on the two rising Muslim revolutionaries of the time – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah I – said:
نہ مصطفیٰ نہ رضا شاہ میں نمود اس کی
یہ روح اپنے بدن کی تلاش میں ہے ابھی
na Mustafa na Raza Shah mayN numood is ki
ye rooh apne badan ki talash mayN hae abhi
He was speaking about a revival of the Muslim spirit, but now Pakistan needs someone to embody a national (not nationalist) revival, and the bodies on offer all appear incapable of embodying the spirit that is needed. My only hope is that, somehow, the general political awakening and engagement triggered by this crisis will coalesce into a more constructive movement, but I don’t see that happening as long as the current leadership is around.
The writer lives in the US and writes regularly on history, politics, social issues, science, artificial intelligence, and complex systems in various forums. His collection of Urdu poetry, ‘Khamoshi’, was published from Lahore in 2017.