As we await the election results from Pakistan — and I believe we should have a clear idea of the outcome before the day is out, even if the outcome is not clear! — let’s pause and consider what sort of campaign it’s been. This was for many reasons a litmus test for Pakistan. And it’s passed it creditably. That deserves recognition.
First, it’s been an exceptionally, actually an unprecedentedly, violent campaign. Declaring “We are not in favour of democracy”, the Taliban threatened to bomb the electoral rallies of secular parties like the PPP, the MQM and the ANP. By one reliable count, on an average 10 to 15 people were killed daily. As Bushra Gohar of the ANP put it: “This is pre-poll rigging”. You could hardly disagree.
Yet that didn’t deter candidates. They found ways, effective or symbolic, of overcoming this hurdle. In the process some martyred themselves for the cause of democracy.
As Najam Sethi, the caretaker chief minister of Punjab, explained, there was no alternative. If Pakistan had waited for the terror to end elections would never have happened. Yet it takes extraordinary guts and deep commitment to campaign in these conditions.
This violence could also put voters off. In fact the Taliban have specifically threatened women who come out to vote. But if Pakistanis turn out in larger numbers than before — and there’s a real expectation the turnout could exceed the previous average of 44% by a whopping 10% — it would prove, or at least corroborate, the thought underlying this analysis that Pakistani democracy has not only responded admirably to this critical challenge but achieved a landmark of defiant commitment against daunting challenges.
A second aspect of this election is that 40 million voters, 45% of the registered electorate, may have voted for the first time yesterday. If you add to that the fact that 35 million previous voters have been struck off the register on the grounds they were bogus, you end up with a virtually unknown electorate. That makes the outcome both unpredictable and exciting.
Now the vast majority of Pakistan’s voters are under 35. A huge section is actually under 25. A recent survey shows that 94% of these people think Pakistan is going in the wrong direction, 77% approve of the army, 74% are inclined towards religious organisations. Will they vote for the Sharifs and Zardaris, who have disappointed them repeatedly, or plump for Imran, a new if risky choice?
For us in India there is a special feature that deserves attention. The Kashmir issue was virtually missing. As Najam Sethi told me, the Pakistani people no longer see Kashmir as an obstacle to the improvement of Indo-Pak relations. We need to recognise that. He also added that the army no longer sees India as an existential threat. At the least, we need to test that.
We also need to learn a lesson from Pakistani politicians. They readily give interviews to Indian journalists. Nawaz Sharif, in fact, spoke with winning candour. Unfortunately, our politicians don’t give interviews to the Pakistani press.
How can we expect a better understanding of our interests and concerns in Pakistan if we won’t speak to their media and thus deny the Pakistani people the right to hear us?
If Najam Sethi is right, the Pakistani people have changed faster and more comprehensively than their politicians. We will deny ourselves the benefit of this shift if we don’t respond to that fact.
Views expressed by the author are personal.