Young Pakistanis cynical about politics

One striking aspect of the last US presidential election was Barack Obama’s ability to connect with young Americans, and draw them into the political process. Alas, this kind of political engagement is entirely missing in Pakistan.

In a recent article in the monthly Newsline, Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence analyst, cited a survey of young Pakistani students at elite educational institutions in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. While the size of the sample is quite small (608), it nevertheless offers an insight into what educated, well-to-do young Pakistanis think about important national and global issues.
For me, the most depressing finding of this survey was that 67 per cent of the respondents said they would not become members of any political party, and over 80 per cent said they would not contribute funds to any party.
This confirms my personal observation about the depoliticisation of an entire generation of young Pakistanis. When you look at our politicians, the first thing you notice about them is their age. Just as they cling on to their party positions, very few young people are coming through to challenge them. The few who do have been anointed by feudal politicians who pass on their political fiefdoms to their sons as part of their inheritance.
On the national scene, it is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that probably has the most elderly leadership. Over the last two decades, it has been steadily squeezed out of Lahore and Karachi by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Muttahida Quami Movement respectively. Now reduced to a largely rural presence, it no longer commands the loyalty of young urban members. While I have no figures to support my assertion, a rough reckoning shows the party to be in terminal decline in the major cities of Pakistan.
A major reason for this lack of interest in politics among educated young Pakistanis is the constant hammering of politicians and the ramshackle democratic system by the electronic media. Day in and day out, retired bureaucrats and generals, as well as out-of-power politicians, are invited to TV studios to abuse the government of the day.
Apart from being a destabilising force, this drip-drip-drip of venom understandably turns young people off politics. They do not have the experience to discern between genuine criticism and a campaign inspired by dark, cynical forces.
Another reason — and one that we often do not take into our calculation — is the ban on student politics issued by Zia over 30 years ago. This far-reaching policy effectively marginalised left-wing, liberal campus parties, and gave rise to the dominance of reactionary groups.
A major casualty of this one-sided ban was the National Students Federation (NSF) that had once incubated and encouraged a generation of student activists who went into politics after graduation. Many of them joined the PPP, fired up by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s populism and radical rhetoric. Others gravitated to even more leftist parties.
Under Zia, however, the NSF was targeted by university authorities and Jamiat hoods, backed by the police and the army. Many NSF activists were jailed; others went underground. Soon, liberal students, with no group to join, were bullied into silence by the Jamiat.
This systematic ganging up on young Pakistani liberal students effectively cut them off from politics: unwilling to join the Jamiat, and unable to express their political views, many were subdued into silence. Swiftly, campuses became graveyards for liberal and left-wing views.
The biggest loser of this reactionary onslaught was the PPP. Already hounded by the police and the Army across the country, it lost much of its urban support from student activists. Worse, even when Zia finally left the scene, it was the religious parties who had trained young cadres to continue to destabilise and harass a fledgling democracy headed by Benazir Bhutto.
Another beneficiary of this rightward tilt is Nawaz Sharif. With his deeply conservative mindset, he has attracted many young people who have been influenced by the Jamiat as students. Although they might not have become members themselves, they are attracted to a politician who once wanted to declare the Sharia the law of the land to replace the constitution, and was on the verge of declaring himself the amir-ul-momineen, or commander of the faithful.
The PPP, for its part, has neither analysed the problem, nor has it sought to reach out to the young. It seems to assume that its votebank will last forever, and that somehow, it has the trust of its supporters unto perpetuity. And then, of course, it suits the old guard not to have to fend off the challenge of young politicians who want to get to the top.
All too often, I am on the receiving end of angry emails from young readers who demand to know how I can support corrupt politicians, and why I defend democracy when it produces leaders like Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. This attitude demonstrates their concern for Pakistan, as well as their confusion. When I ask them if they are for dictatorship, they are usually clear they are not. Through a lack of a political understanding of the situation, they know what they are against, but don’t know what they are for.
Without a charismatic leader to inspire voters, I do not expect the PPP to activate its base in the next election. For the foreseeable future, I can see it decline into irrelevance. While it will form a vocal opposition, I don’t think it will be a serious contender for power any time soon.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s increasingly conservative urban population will continue to provide new recruits to Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League faction. Thus far, the PPP has branded itself as the party of the poor. It is now in danger of becoming the party of the elderly.

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