Elections then and now

Despite our bad political record as a country, despite the vicissitudes of military rule, this remains an intensely political society, politics the favourite subject of conversation of all classes of people. In November 1964 Madar-i-Millat, Miss Fatima Jinnah (contesting the presidential election against Field Marshal Ayub Khan), came to Chakwal to address a public meeting. When she arrived I saw flint-hearted men, beyond sentiment of any kind, blubbering.

There was nothing charismatic about Miss Jinnah’s person. But she was charismatic by association, the Quaid-i-Azam’s sister in person. The 1970 elections caused a storm to blow across both wings of Pakistan. Caught in the fever of that moment, how could we have known where that storm was heading or what grim destruction it would wreak? The echoes of the ill-fated 1977 elections deluded many of us into thinking that tyranny was being dealt a blow and democracy’s hour was at hand. Little we realised that in the witches’ cauldron of that summer of misguided discontent, a right-wing conspiracy was being hatched which, far from securing democracy, would lead inexorably to Zia’s rule.

The first election in which I did any campaigning was the 1979 local election ordained by Zia, that election too part of the unvarying pattern of military rule. Ayub, Zia, Musharraf all sound the same. And yet the heaviest investment military regimes make is into wanting the nation to believe that they are different, that the corrupt will be held to account. To achieve credibility, the saviour complex seeks two things above all: collective amnesia and collective gullibility. Campaigning back then was not so much arduous as primitive. There weren’t

too many roads in the countryside and, God knows, there weren’t any telephones. Everything had to be done ‘manually’, so to speak, messages being conveyed by word of mouth and a great deal of difficult travelling being undertaken to reach remote areas. It’s so different these days, the difference itself being a measure of the spectacular progress we’ve made in so many fields.

But electioneering these days is a far swankier affair with candidates and supporters going about in late-model cars, the rhetoric of poverty a world away from all this expense and glitter. The public meeting still remains the favoured method of voter-contact but the spread of the telephone has added a whole new dimension to the task of political communication.

And everyone has a mobile phone or aspires to have one. We had mobile phones even in the 2002 general elections but with coverage sparse, most district areas were out of cell-phone reach. Which makes local elections the first real mobile phone elections in the history of Pakistan. So we’ve come a long way technically, technology co-mpressing time and space. But concept-wise we remain stuck in the dark ages, with the old script of manufactured kings’ parties, party-less local elections, heavily-influenced elections and parliament a mere showpiece, the information and communication revolutions super-imposed on the froz-en verities of military rule.

Ayaz, a columnist for Dawn, writes for THT from Islamabad