Pakistan: What next?

Good sense - and even some hope - at last night's Intelligence 2 debate

A distinguished panel, including the chief of the general staff, General Sir David Richards, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, Professor Anatole Lieven, US political analyst Jonathan Paris, Chatham House's Farzana Shaikh, the NS South Asia correspondent William Dalrymple and India's former Foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, discussed this question at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea last night.

Despite media reports such as the one last year that labelled Pakistan "the world's most dangerous country", the tone was pragmatically, if cautiously upbeat.

Imran Khan made a passionate plea for observers to understand that "the real enemy" was and is al-Qaeda, and not the Pakistani Taliban. The latter may be religious fundamentalists, he said, but "no Pushtun has ever been involved in acts of international terrorism. The streets of Britain are not going to be made safe by targeting the Taliban. You must separate the real ideologues from our own tribal people."

Khan and Lieven both pointed out that it is Western policies and action -- such as what Khan called the "insanity and immorality" of using unmanned drone aircraft to carry out attacks in the border areas, causing, as he rightly said, "so-called collateral damage" (oh, bitter euphemism) -- that are driving radicalisation.

There was a consensus that far from being a force that could push Pakistan to become a "failed state", the country's Taliban could ultimately be a key diplomatic player in the region; that left to its own devices, the Pakistani government could negotiate with them, and through them with the Afghan Taliban. Overall, General Richards said, "Pakistan could hold the key to stability, not just in the region but across the Muslim world."

Leaving aside that larger claim for the moment, the most impressive speaker was Jaswant Singh, whose words carried the dignity of age and the courage of a politician unafraid to defy his party - he was expelled from the Hindu nationalist BJP last year for writing a book deemed too favourable to Pakistan's founding leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. "India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were born of the same womb," he said, "but it was not a natural birth - it was a Caesarian section."

He too regarded Pakistani security not just as a matter for that country alone but for the region. William Dalrymple quipped that Pakistan was "the only American ally that the US regularly bombs" -- a good line, but it was Singh's gentle, rueful, chiding that struck home. Sixty years after the birth of these nations, he said, in a tone of mild wonder, "we are still subject to the whims and fancies of the West."

If democracy is part of "what's next" for Pakistan, there was very little mention of it. Dalrymple did point out that the country's religious parties have never received more than a tiny percentage of the vote, so there was no need to fear them taking over and turning the country into a theocratic state.

But I thought then of two other Muslim democracies, Malaysia and Indonesia. Both have histories of relatively fair elections (obviously more recently in Indonesia's case, although elections of sorts did take place under Suharto), and in neither do religious parties have any chance of winning overall majorities - but they don't have to. Their very presence has an effect on the moderate mainstream, where parties constantly feel the need to burnish their Islamic credentials so as not to be outflanked by those who wish to see no divide between religion and politics.

Not one of those countries' founding fathers - Jinnah in Pakistan, Tunku Abdul Rahman in Malaysia and Sukarno in Indonesia - would be acceptable as leaders in their states today. They would be seen as far too liberal and secular, and in the case of Jinnah and the Tunku, disgracefully fond of whisky as well.

Maybe yearning after some return to the more plural, tolerant polity Jinnah seemed to envision is unrealistic. A stable, peaceful Pakistan which other countries do not try to use as a pawn to further their own geo-political ambitions is a big enough wish in itself -- but one which last night's panel seemed to suggest we may dare hope for.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.