The bomb blasts ripping through the ANP, the MQM and, though to a lesser extent, the PPPhave been called a new kind of rigging. The idea of the Taliban, who take responsibility for every such attack, is to deter the leaders of these parties from addressing people in the time-honoured political jalsa. Whether it works or not is still to be seen. There is, after all, a possibility that the people will cast sympathy votes for the underdog, forgetting the corruption (or, at least, the anecdotal perception of it) of the ANP and the PPP. But the idea that hundreds of people will lose their lives and thousands will be injured before the elections is appalling. We all know how we have come to this pass and it is in bad taste if I say “didn’t I tell you” for the umpteenth time so let that pass. The parties in question are right in demanding protection for their leaders but their offices and workers are just too many to be protected. This is probably the most unique and sanguine form of pre-poll rigging in the history of elections and I cannot predict its fallout.
There is another form of pre-poll rigging which is weighted against the secular democratic parties. First, take the very translation of the word “secular”. Our Urdu writers generally call itladiniyat which literally means “without faith” or “having no religion”. But this translation falsifies the history of the term. This term is based on the theory of the separation of religion from governance. Europe learned to separate the two spheres after hundreds of years of wars of religion and millions of blighted lives through nearly 600 years. Religion was officially declared a personal matter and the function of the state was merely to ensure that everybody is given the right to practise it without harming others. This was exactly the principle enunciated by Mr Jinnah in his August 11 speech to the Constituent Assembly. And precisely because it was to the very body which was supposed to make the Constitution, he made it clear that religion will not be the business of the state and that people will be free to believe in whatever they liked. But then what other translation can be used? There is dahriyat which means “of the earth” since dahr means “the earth” but this came to be reserved for atheism in the translations of philosophy in the early 20th century so this term is even worse than the one we use now. My own suggestion is alami where alam means “world” and the “i” is added to show that it is an adjective.
The other form of subtle subversion of the secular parties is that they are forced to be apologetic and to use the vocabulary of the religious parties. This is partly their own fault. After all, was it not ZA Bhutto himself who tried to appease the religious right by injecting religious provisions which all previous governments had resisted and no subsequent government dared remove? And then, was it not the PPP whose ministers pandered to the religious right so that some members attended the jalsas condemning the killing of their own governor, while others waxed eloquent in the jalsas condemning the same incident. To a lesser extent, the ANP, or rather some members of it, did similar things though the MQM did not. However, this is a small part of the story. The narrative of the religious parties became mainstream thanks to the efforts of Ziaul Haq and now, whether it translates into votes or not, it defines political debate. This means that the secular parties are playing on other peoples’ wicket. That is why their performance is contradictory and sometimes hypocritical. This culture can be changed with effort but there is no chance of doing it for this election so the parties of the religious right have a natural advantage for now, which is a form of the inherent pre-poll rigging factor.
Yet another factor is the incumbency factor, which is also against the PML-N in Punjab, but the extent of the anecdotal evidence, the court cases and the media trials which the PPP has had to suffer is unmatched. Although most of our problems are because of wrong policies as I have written earlier, the social media and the jokes industry, to say nothing of the regular media, points only to the corruption which biases the voters against the PPP and the ANP. There is one kind of bias which is against all politicians and this we must guard against both in Pakistan and India. It is that everybody attacks politicians and politics without taking into account other decision-makers. This gives the impression that only the politicians are in politics whereas many other players are. Politicians are maligned in cinema, stories, jokes, media and the social media. That this happens all over the world is no consolation if you remember disasters like the “charge of the light brigade” which emerges as a piece of heroism instead of a monumental folly. And what price the battle of the Somme? And, indeed, all the failed battles for which generals go scot-free. What is wrong with this is that if one shows politicians as crooks and fools and if courts love to handcuff and fetter them as our returning officers did, the public will lose faith in the democratic process itself. This is already happening in many democratic countries so the turnout in elections is often low even in stable Western countries. But those are stable countries, whereas in Pakistan, if people lose trust in politicians the alternatives are the military and some form of fascist right-wing autocracy. How many people want that?