THE incumbent government seems to be having great trouble asserting itself while remaining within the limits of the law. With the interior minister making it clear that he is willing to go to any lengths — “democratic or undemocratic; principled or unprincipled” — to counter the PTI, he has just confirmed the worst fears of political analysts and observers who have been warning about Pakistan’s gradual slide towards totalitarianism.
‘There are no laws and no rules’ binding the government any longer, to paraphrase Rana Sanaullah. In other words, the PDM government will abuse state power if it needs to in order to neutralise the once again resurgent PTI. “It is us or them,” as the interior minister quite candidly explained in a recent interview during which he made these remarks. This hardly bodes well for national stability.
However one may interpret Mr Sanaullah’s statement, the PML-N is clearly struggling to counter the PTI politically. It may not acknowledge this, but the large rally in Lahore’s Greater Iqbal Park late Saturday was a clear enough message that using state-sanctioned violence to cut the party down to size does not appear to be working.
The rally was, by most independent accounts, quite well-attended despite the Punjab administration’s efforts. The arrest and disappearance, respectively, of two prominent young faces in the PTI — lawyer Hassaan Niazi and head of the PTI’s social media team, Azhar Mashwani — reports of the detention of lower-level party organisers and their family members; police raids at supporters and sympathisers’ homes; and the willy-nilly blocking of Lahore’s roads with containers and other impediments on the day of the rally all failed to have a chilling effect on the PTI’s supporters. No wonder the interior minister feels frustrated.
Brute force only looks like an ‘answer’ where politics fails. We saw this when PML-N activists were rounded up in July 2018 to sabotage the PML-N’s electoral chances, and we see it happening to a different set of actors today. In both cases, the forces behind the campaigns of abduction and harassment appear to be the same.
In both cases, the shameful acquiescence of civilian leaders — clearly hoping to derive political benefits from the violent repression of their opponents — allowed rogue actors to expand their influence in the political domain. Mr Sanaullah — himself a victim of the state’s excesses — should have known better.
The enforced disappearance of Mr Mashwani and other workers, regulatory bans on the media’s coverage of the PTI, frivolous arrests of political workers and unleashing the police on the citizenry will not win the PML-N any ‘free and fair’ elections.
Instead, they will worsen the anarchy that the interior minister himself concedes is prevailing in the country. Perhaps Mr Sanaullah should consider setting better precedents rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.
Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2023