Imran Khan’s victory despite the odds stacked against him has stunned the world. In many constituencies, independent candidates fielded by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) trounced political heavyweights, unseating them from their traditional bastions. This was no easy feat to achieve, given that the establishment – undoubtedly the most powerful institution controlling Pakistan’s affairs – went all out to intimidate and harass the PTI to prevent them from contesting these elections.
The party was dismantled while an immensely popular Imran Khan along with other party leaders are currently behind bars. Even their party symbol of a cricket bat that the masses associated the PTI with was snatched. An internet blackout on the day of voting only added to the prevailing confusion and chaos.
Notwithstanding the grave electoral manipulation and attempts to mislead the public, the people of Pakistan have spoken by using the power of the ballot to make their choice clear. The results indicate that they refused to be cowed down or to accept the establishment’s political diktats as a fait accompli.
For Pakistan, which has yet to witness a prime minister completing her or his full term in office, this could indeed be a watershed moment as a country still struggling to consolidate its democracy.
In an election year, when 49% of the global population will be voting and at a time when we are witnessing the worrying emergence of right-wing strongmen trampling over democracy the world over, the people of Pakistan have demonstrated that even in the face of an incredibly powerful establishment it is the will of the masses that will eventually prevail.
As results started trickling out, I was miles away from Kashmir in Medina for Umrah. It was a chance encounter with a young Pakistani Pashtun that got me thinking. Even though I rightly guessed his nationality, he appeared reluctant to admit it. His forehead was furrowed with lines that gave away his disgust and disenchantment. As I asked him about the situation unravelling in Pakistan, he chose not to mince his words – “halat toh kharab hi hain. Humare Pathan kay sath dekho kya kiya“.
The young man was completely disillusioned with what was happening in Pakistan, and the treatment meted out to his leader only exacerbated the sense of brewing bitterness.
A sense of deja vu
The last time an election exposed ethnic fault lines in Pakistan, this led to its eventual dismemberment with the creation of Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, a revolutionary leader adored by Pakistani Bengalis, was also stripped of his rightful victory by the then establishment, followed by a violent crackdown on its people. The mass denial of democratic rights and civil liberties to the Bengalis stirred a revolt – the outcome of which was another partition.
Today’s grim situation not only shares a worrying parallel with the period that led to East Pakistan’s secession. It also coincides with a severe economic crisis and a sudden surge in terror incidents. There is simmering resentment in Balochistan & Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the establishment for stealing and exploiting their natural resources while they live in abject poverty.
By repeating the wrongs of history, Pakistan’s all-powerful state could yet again plunge the country into further chaos and political instability. Denying the youth who en masse voted for Imran Khan will have a cascading effect of street protests alternating with a vicious cycle of violence.
The scenes playing out in Pakistan have evoked a sense of deja vu for the people of Jammu & Kashmir, who have experienced their fair share of subjugation of democratic rights. The genesis of the growing sense of alienation can be traced back to the shambolic 1951 elections to the Constituent Assembly, which was to ratify the former princely state’s accession to the Union of India. The voice of dissent was crushed in one fell swoop, which shook the faith of Kashmiris in the newly found democratic process. This became a recurring pattern and template to manipulate and erode the popular will for years to come.
While there were exceptions like 1977, the turning point came with the brazenly rigged election in 1987 which acted as a catalyst for the insurgency that engulfed the state in a vortex of violence. To this day, the people of J&K continue to suffer and pay a price with their lives upended by the continuing conflict.
Pakistan’s powerful establishment may have denied Imran Khan his rightful victory but by doing so they are also depriving millions of Pakistans their agency and their right to choose, especially at a time when they are already reeling under a severe economic and political crisis. In these circumstances, undermining the popular mandate will only serve as a pyrrhic victory. Assuming that a non-PTI government through permutations will be thrust on the people, one can only imagine the further instability this could bring to a country already on the brink of chaos.
Mehbooba Mufti is president of the J&K Peoples Democratic Party and a former chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.