THE recent campaigning for the Legislative Assembly election in Azad Jammu & Kashmir has taken political confrontation to a new low. All three mainstream political parties, the PTI, PML-N and PPP, have accused each other of selling out Kashmir, of being friends with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of compromising on vital national interests.
One PTI federal minister, while addressing public meetings, called former prime minister and PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a traitor, leading to a rumpus in the Senate and National Assembly. Prime Minister Imran Khan, taking part in the election campaign, injected yet another uncalled-for dimension into the discourse by implying that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s grandson played the expensive sport of polo in England using the ill-gotten wealth of his grandfather. The prime minister could have stopped at criticising Nawaz Sharif who is his political rival; instead, he considered it fit to go further and target Maryam Nawaz’s son Junaid Safdar who is not in politics.
Maryam Nawaz returned the compliment the very next day by hitting out at the ‘Jewish’ household where Imran Khan’s sons, who again are not in politics, are being brought up in England.
In the last days of the campaign, the federal minister for Kashmir affairs referred to Maryam Nawaz as ‘bandit queen’ and threatened to ‘slap her so hard that her real face beneath the cosmetic surgery which had cost taxpayers millions would be exposed’. The Election Commission of Azad Kashmir ordered the expulsion of the same minister from AJK because of the similarly unacceptable language he had used earlier during the campaign but the order was ignored and he continued his election campaign and attended rallies even in the presence of Prime Minister Khan.
Politics as it exists now is a catalyst for further divisions.
These are just a few examples of the current political discourse that is prevailing not only in AJK but also across Pakistan. In fact, this standard of political communication has been introduced in AJK by Pakistani mainstream political parties. This language is not only an indication of the deep polarisation that exists in Pakistani politics, it is also a catalyst for further divisions. It is not political differences which are prompting this polarisation; the discourse has reached a level of personal enmity where the very survival of the opponent, at least in the political arena, is not acceptable.
This everyday discourse has poisoned the minds of followers to an extent that they have started picking fights in places not conventionally meant for settling political scores. Recently, PTI supporters and some relatives of the PML-N leadership entered into an ugly brawl at a London restaurant on Eid day. The vulgar language and invectives were caught on camera and made viral within minutes, further spreading toxicity.
Earlier, during the budget session of the National Assembly, ministers as well as other parliamentarians did exactly the same in the hallowed halls of lawmaking, and set the stage for society in general to follow in their footsteps. After this toxic campaign, as AJK votes, it is not only the coronavirus pandemic which, it is feared, will spread, the battle lines too may be more firmly entrenched among the political sympathisers and workers of major political parties.
The current AJK Assembly election is the first after India’s unilateral and provocative actions that deprived occupied Kashmir of its special status and Kashmiris of their rights. The election campaign could have been used by the political parties to articulate their policies and action plans for addressing the grave situation and to take steps to promote Kashmiris’ rights but the tone and content of the campaign has probably further lowered the Kashmiris’ morale on both sides of the Line of Control.
Pakistan has seen such high-pitched political enmity before as well. The aggressive tone of the campaign set by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the equally flammable response by his opponents before and after the 1970 general election set off a chain reaction which eventually led to pitched battles between the supporters and opponents of the PPP in the streets and bazars of Pakistan after the 1977 election, culminating in martial law and the tragedy widely recognised as the ‘judicial murder’ of Bhutto.
The political stream remained heavily poisoned even after that until Nawaz Sharif, the champion of the anti-Bhutto lobby at that time, also faced a military coup in 1999, and the two parties realised the heavy price that both had paid. Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto ended up signing the Charter of Democracy in 2006. Why should it take another 36 years and a series of tragedies for the PTI and PML-N to realise the follies of a toxic discourse?
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2021