In Pakistan, people view political leaders as the most important actors by the people in solving their problems. They defend every action and every policy of their leader. Whereas, in west (or the first world) the leader is not very important. In UK we recently saw the election of their new prime minister Liz Truss. The competition between two potential candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak was about what solutions they had for rising cost of living and NHS (National Health Service) in UK. The debate was on solid issues and people voted for the one they thought could handle the situation. In Pakistan, however, the debate is about vague things such as ideology, nationalism, morality, protecting culture and religion, actual freedom etc. Nobody knows what these things mean. Winston Churchill led Great Britain in second world war and was considered a great leader but right after the war ended, he was voted out by the British people because they no longer deemed him fit to run the country.
The structure of Pakistan’s economy, nature of its foreign relations, defense expenditure, doling out of subsidies and giving tax breaks to capitalist giants and relationship of state with media has more or less remained the same no matter who has been in power. Yet people are deeply invested in their leaders and consider them different. The only issue considered worth discussing is the morality of political leader Political opponents are labelled as traitors, foreign agents, thieves, and a lot else.
The nature of these debated can be traced back to formation of political parties in pre-partition India. Hasan Askari Rizvi in Political Parties and Fragmented Democracies compares the development of political parties in West to that of in Colonial India. He explains that the rise of political parties in West was due to emergence of representative democracies whereas in the parties that were formed in Colonial India were advocacy groups that aimed to secure some rights for their communities and not a result of some democratic process. Rizvi mentions three impacts of pre-partition period that affected nature and role of post-independence political parties. The first being transformation of a nationalist movement (Muslim league) into a national party that attracted people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Second being equating the opposition to Muslim league as opposition to the Pakistani state and third being confrontation with the colonial ruler which translated into confrontation with post-independence governments.
We see all these effects in our current political scenario. Leaders instead of catering to the individual concerns or concerns of communities sell a broad narrative, which often includes religion, that provides solution to no material problem but incite nationalist sentiments. They ‘otherize’ their political rivals and their support base. The argument is that only their party is working in the national interest (whatever that might mean) and all the other parties are anti-state agents. Furthermore, there is always an effort by the opposition to overthrow or destabilize the sitting government. In western democracies, the role of the opposition is to criticize the government and sit with it for making policy in public interest. Here, sitting with the government is considered anomalous and destabilizing it seems to be the only goal of opposition.
Mohammad Waseem in Electoral Politics: Theory and Selection, explains the approaches used by the political parties in Pakistan in elections. He describes them in Robert Rohr Schneider’s words as chasing strategies and mobilizing strategies. He explains how chasing strategies are used by mainstream parties and some established ethnic parties who attempt to maximize their votes in general and focus on the un-aligned voter in particular. The themes these parties usually subscribe to are higher moral principles, empathy for the poor, ethnic and tribal brotherhood, and legacy of Muslim nationalist struggle in Colonial India. Mobilizing strategies are often used by religious parties that address their core voters, use ideology as an instrument for propaganda and rely on party organization to reach to the electorate.
Supporters of each party worship their leaders, chant slogans in their name and yet the living condition of people do not improve. In fact, it worsens. Media is capable of playing an important role in this case, but the media is also divided. Supporters of one party watch one tv channel and supporters of other party watch another tv channel. There are some journalists ‘loved’ by one party and some by other. Everyone wants to listen their own version of the events happening. The debate on politics is generally subjective. One struggles to find an objective opinion on mainstream media. The topic of discussion is moral authority or standing of political leaders rather than what policies they plan to implement and how good or bad their governance is. We have had a prime minister disqualified because he was not considered morally fit to hold the office. The standard of morality applied to politicians is applied to no other public office holder including bureaucrats and other government servants.
It is high time the debate around politics shifted on issues faced by the people and country. Characters of leaders are irrelevant to country’s progress. There should an accountability of leaders who still cling on to vague ideas and ideologies to attract votes. The primary role in this case is to be played by the media. Journalists should question politicians on their performance and governance. What are their plans for education, health, climate change, poverty, population control and improving living conditions of the people? If this does not happen, society will continue to get polarized. We will have more slogans and sloganeers but will continue to decline as a nation and country.