Pakistani Peoples Party activists protest against the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari, former president and co-chairman of the PPP, in Quetta on June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP / Banaras Khan

The political temperature in Pakistan has reached the boiling point. In fact both the political and social discourses are gradually falling apart. In a bid to discredit the main political parties and their leaders, the invisible forces by using Prime Minister Imran Khan as a puppet have also brought a culture of hatred that can be termed the worst ever political and social polarization in the history of the country. Now a difference of opinion is considered a crime, and the saner voices calling for the supremacy of the constitution and democracy or for a pluralist society are labeled as traitors and foreign agents.

The illnesses of two political leaders is being ridiculed through around-the-clock propaganda in the mainstream media, while character assassination is a norm now, as anyone who has the backing of the security establishment or the current government can blame politicians for all the woes of the country without any proof. Nawaz Sharif, a thrice-elected prime minister, is being treated in such an inhuman way that even Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s martial era seems better than the current hybrid martial law where the puppet Imran Khan is the face while his strings are pulled by the military establishment.

Sharif, suffering from an immune disorder, needs urgent treatment to save his life, but the government has imposed a condition that before leaving the country he should submit a security bond as assurance that he will return after his treatment. This demand came at a time when the courts have already authorized Sharif getting the treatment of his choice anywhere, but the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government and its backers could not rise above petty politics and personal grudges. As expected, Sharif has refused to submit any security bond, and now a subcommittee of the cabinet will decide whether he will be allowed to travel abroad or not.

According to insiders, the powers that be want Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz not to participate in politics until 2023, and after Sharif refused to comply, he is again being humiliated. This is being done to give an impression that Sharif is pleading to go abroad using his illness as a shield. Contrary to that, Sharif was not ready to go abroad and it was his family including his political heir Maryam who persuaded him to agree to go to London for a few weeks to get the proper treatment.

The same is the case with the former president of Pakistan and co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Asif Zardari, who is suffering from diabetes and heart disease and is still being kept in custody without even a single charge of corruption being proved against him. Nothing has changed in Pakistan as the third generation of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is seeking justice from the courts and trying every political option available to get their father Zardari relief from unfair court actions.

Sharif, who openly challenged the establishment and almost defeated it, may well be on his deathbed, and yet his illness has been ridiculed. His daughter Maryam remains in silence and his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), remains reluctant to show some defiance to the powers that be. Then there is a larger segment of brainwashed masses who believe the propaganda of the establishment and despite Khan’s poor show of governance still imagine him as the messiah for the country. This segment has a hatred for all the political parties other than the establishment’s favorite, PTI. For them, Sharif and Zardari are the most corrupt leaders of the country and they deserve even to be hanged for looting imaginary public money.

Meanwhile billions of rupees being allocated to defense and the business activities of the military establishment such as FM radio channels, real estate and dozens of other businesses is considered normal. This segment of the population also does not question why Imran Khan’s offshore company Niazi Services Ltd was not properly investigated, or why his sister Aleema Khan, who admitted that she concealed assets, was only asked to pay a fine instead of being asked to provide a money trail of her assets, or why the foreign funding case against PTI is still pending in the courts after five long years.

So with this segment buying the narrative of the establishment and its puppet in Islamabad, they expected smooth sailing, but it did not happen. First Sharif and then his daughter Maryam launched a counter-narrative against the establishment at a time when even the PPP was afraid of going against the military elite, and then the youthful urban middle class of Punjab refused to consider the establishment a sacred cow. This segment in Punjab now is thinking in the same pattern as Sindhis who still have not forgotten the hanging of Zulfikar Bhutto and the murder of Benazir Bhutto. The nationalists in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa already dislike the establishment’s role in shaping the political and social narratives.

This divide is getting larger with every passing day and the element of bitterness is also on the rise. The pro-democratic segment of the masses is not willing to accept the hegemony of the establishment, while the pro-establishment segment wants to see an end to all democratic parties and thinks PTI and the military elite can get the country out of trouble. Amid this polarization, instead of going forward, Pakistan is moving backward.

Imran Khan’s inability to govern and to rise above petty politics has almost landed him in a dead-end street, whereas the establishment despite installing Khan as prime minister and putting the opposition leaders behind bars is still not able to keep a firm grip on power. The US support for a peaceful and face-saving exit of its troops from Afghanistan may have helped the Pakistani military keep the artificial political discourse intact, but it is clearly written on the wall that it will not work much longer. The way elected leaders are treated and humiliated has equally created a wave of hatred against the PTI regime and its backers.

The masses are left at the mercy of inflation and unemployment and where they can see how their ballot first was stolen and then their leaders were victimized for challenging the hegemony of the invisible forces on the political discourse. One hopes that Khan when he is in opposition will not have to face the unjust and exploitative side of this system. Sooner or later Maryam and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will rise again on the political horizon, but the question is, who will end this culture of hatred and division in society? It now is not in the power of any political player or the establishment to bring back a tolerant culture of progressive thinking.

It is not Sharif who is fighting for his survival, nor is it Zardari, though both have health problems; it is actually the political and social discourse of Pakistan that is ailing. And as long as the establishment fails to accept that it is the big part of the problem, then it will be too late to save the future of this society.

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