5 troubling signs in the first two weeks of Naya Pakistan
Many in urban Pakistan have welcomed the rise of Imran Khan’s PTI to power with that sense of victory and relief that one associates with a movement’s long journey from the streets to the corridors of power. The new Prime Minister himself has shown interest in achieving some level of consensus in governing the country. This was especially evident from the assurances that he gave to the people in his victory speech – speaking of a renewed humanitarian emphasis as the cornerstone of the work that his administration hopes to accomplish.
Much has been made of a 100-day agenda and supporters of the new government have argued that no judgement ought to be made prematurely.
However, since those early moments of optimism, as the government waded into the daily business of setting up its administration, it has responded to a number of situations in highly telling and troubling ways.
Signs of troubles to come are already abundant. Let’s have a look at some of these, in no particular order of precedence…
1) Human Rights issues
Dr. Shireen Mazari is a force to be reckoned with, but set a troubling precedent for the new government as its Minister for Human Rights. The well-known international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) recommended six key areas for the new government to work on – all of which have already been raised by Pakistani activists and rights watchdogs. Mazari’s response was to ‘agree’ and then sharply ask HRW to look at other places too. She went on to invoke two regions that are favorites amongst the populist right-wing circles here whenever a discussion on Pakistan’s own human rights record has to be scuttled: Occupied Kashmir and Occupied Palestine.
This ignores, firstly, HRW’s immensely important work on both those regions. Secondly, and even more importantly, it sets a poor tone for a Minister for Human Rights to berate a respected international organization and tell it to look elsewhere when it makes recommendations. On human rights questions, it puts the PTI on par with Trump in the US, Netanyahu in Israel, Modi in India, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, or the Saudi and Iranian regimes – i.e. authoritarian right-wing populist administrations which make light of the serious human rights abuses in their own jurisdiction and subscribe to the conspiratorial view that their own country has been “unfairly singled out” by international organizations.
“Don’t you see ABC in XYZ region of the world?” is a terrible line to take for the Minister for Human Rights in a country that is so plagued by violence, inequality, terrorism and abuse of power by state organs.
One hopes that this was merely part of the process of an opposition accustomed to confrontation, settling in to govern.
2) Dealing with dissent
After the positive vibes set by his initial victory speech post-elections, the PTI went about gathering allies to form its federal and provincial governments. In his address to the National Assembly, the opposition parties created a ruckus – constantly disrupting his address to parliament. At some point, the new PM seems to have decided to fall back on his pre-election rhetoric as a response to this disruption. He began to make promises of fierce accountability, etc. – all of which can be interpreted as thinly-veiled threats of political victimization to his opponents.
The problem is made worse by the fact that the PTI itself set precedents for loutish behavior by opposition players during its own time out of office.
This unnecessarily emotional response by the Prime Minister towards unpleasant behavior from his opponents was only thrown into sharp relief by PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech to the same House on the same day. Beyond the genuine and important questions about the PPP’s commitment to principles in politics, the fact remains that if a young and relatively new politician like Bilawal Bhutto could outshine Imran Khan of the 22 years of struggle (another favorite topic), it speaks volumes of the long road that the new government must travel towards greater political maturity and restraint.
3) Meddling with the police – on dodgy grounds
A bizarre incident was picked up by electronic and social media. In short, the ex-husband of Bushra Imran was stopped by police and responded with insults and abuse. While there is nothing new about such behavior by well-heeled Pakistanis, what happened next flies in the face of the expectations created by the PTI during its long campaign against previous governments.
Pakpattan District Police Officer (DPO) Rizwan Gondal was ordered to go and apologize to Khawar Maneka, the ex-husband of the PM’s spouse. When the police official refused, he was transferred.
The problem here is that people within the administration are outraged too – and some have chosen to be vocal about it. So it is difficult to imagine how the PTI government on the federal and provincial levels will be able to establish a good working relationship with the bureaucratic apparatus if such high-handed behavior continues. Not to mention the optics of spending years criticizing VIP culture and then resorting to it in such blatant ways that makes even the Shehbaz Sharif administration seem reasonable.
4) First instinct when faced with controversy
Much has been made about PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry’s ill-advised and mathematically unsound statements on the cost per kilometer of operating the Agusta Westland helicopter used by the PM on his commutes to and from his Bani Gala residence to his office. The purpose here is not to dwell on how counter-intuitive Fawad Chaudhry’s claims are, but to point out the underlying issue here.
The PTI leadership has developed an unfortunate habit of allowing its anxieties to spill out in public when dealing with public discussions that it doesn’t like. The result of this is that the leadership ends up taking some very indefensible and counter-factual stances, which set it up for more ridicule later on.
It would have been quite possible for the new ruling party to justify the use of the helicopter on – for instance – security grounds, or even ignore the criticism. Instead, it chose to take a laughable position and then defended it until only the option of saying “I Googled it” was left – which is what Fawad Chaudhry effectively went on to say. This may be due largely to the unrealistic expectations that the party created amongst its own support base when it was in opposition, by ferociously attacking every sign of VIP culture from previous administrations.
5) Inability to control ‘colorful’ figures
The PTI – having had to rely on the discourse and methods of other populist new right-wing movements from around the world – has attracted a number of problematic personalities. One of these is now its Minister for Information and Culture in Punjab: Fayyazul Hassan Chohan.
Soon after the PTI came to power, this individual made some highly disturbing statements at a public event: promising to clamp down on cinemas for “immorality”, claiming he could make former dance performer Nargis into a Hajj pilgrim, etc. Moreover, his remarks on this occasion were couched in very crude boy-ish terms replete with references to pornography, etc. – “locker room talk” as President Trump would call it.
Other figures associated with the PTI leadership have also engaged in such discourse – both in the past and present.
The problem with such occurrences is similar to what used to happen under the PML-N administration when Captain Safdar went about making violent statements against religious minorities. It creates a highly toxic atmosphere for governance. But this is compounded by the fact that PTI, unlike the other mainstream parties, has deliberately courted conservative elements on social media and in broader society. Much of its critique of the old political players was based on hyper-nationalist grandstanding and conservative moral posturing.
If such unpleasantness continues even with the party in power, the results would be more disastrous than just ruined optics. For this poisonous mix to now enjoy active administrative backing, it will only end up making life yet more miserable for Pakistanis.
In the meanwhile, watch the video with his remarks and remember that Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan is now minister for culture in the land of Amir Khusrau and Bulleh Shah.
Fayyaz ul hassan chohan’s lewd comments are not only disgusting but also disturbing to hear. A simple question, how come he knows all these details? Must be an avid viewer of such “scenes” ? pic.twitter.com/cKOIyAgEWy
— Aniqa Nisar (@AniqaNisar) August 30, 2018
The author is the Features Editor at The Friday Times.