Looking forward to next Monday’s elections in Pakistan, my thoughts go back to the 1970 elections, when I helped PTV cover the elections in “real time” and reported them directly to the population without any intermediaries. Neither the Election Commission nor the Inter Services Intelligence at that time had the nous to manage the results. In fact, the ISI had predicted that the populist Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would get a bare minimum of seats, as would the Bengali nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in East Pakistan. They predicted a hung parliament that would allow the military dictator General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan free rein to manipulate the system, to his liking. (Shades of what we are hearing these days!) Little did they know what the people of Pakistan would do. Hungry to exercise their right to vote for the first time in a free manner since the 1956 elections (that were overturned by a military coup in 1958 and followed by direct or indirect military rule for 12 years), Pakistanis overturned all expectations and predictions.
Some 63 per cent of Pakistan cast their votes on December 7, 1970. The eastern wing chose Mujib, the west chose Bhutto. The East Pakistanis by rights could have ruled the country. But the west, the army, and Bhutto, would have none of that. Civil strife erupted. The military was caught in a bind. And to “save” Pakistan, Yahya let loose a reign of military terror in East Pakistan, in the end losing that province to an Indian invasion. Thus was born Bangladesh. Pakistan has never been the same since.
But those elections in 1970 were a huge shot of adrenalin for the electorate and for us in Pakistan Television news. I recall how we set up a system to gather results from each district and reported them to our central office. As they came in, we announced them from a special election studio in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, with a wall-sized chart that listed progressive results for each party by province. We stayed on the air for 29 hours non-stop, sleeping in shifts and then getting on the air again. Shoaib Hashmi, an intellectual from Lahore, and Ubaidullah Beg, the brilliant mind who was co-host of a popular twenty questions-type of program called Kasauti, anchored the Urdu reportage. I cut in with the English updates. We were on an emotional high, seeing the peoples’ right to select their leaders being exercised in a bold manner. And for the first time, the people of Pakistan believed what we told them from official PTV. They responded warmly.
To help pass the time, I had brought in a book of elephant jokes. We began filling the gaps on air with those jokes. Even translated into Urdu they struck a chord with our audience. We had started getting letters, cards, and parcels with mini-elephants from or viewers while we were still in the midst of our marathon broadcast. They stayed up with us. We were in reporting heaven! I recall coming out of the studio in the middle of the night to see my friend Gareth Gwenlan, standing on the lawn of the TV station waiting for me. Gareth, later famous as the producer of Fawlty Towers and other top BBC shows, had been sent with another colleague to help train us in TV production by the BBC. He said he was watching the reporting of results from his home in distant Islamabad and could not stay away. “I had to be where the excitement was!” he said.
That night’s excitement was repeated with the provincial elections ten days later when we were on the air for another 17 hours non-stop. But it did not last too long after that, as the country slipped into chaos and confusion and street protests led to open rebellion in East Pakistan and then an unnecessary war with India that Pakistan lost. The country wept as our once proud but badly led and misused army surrendered in the Race Course Ground in Dacca on 16 December 1971. Pakistan was never going to be the same again.
Subsequent elections never produced the same vitality and huge turnouts. Even the election after the death of another military dictator General Ziaul Haq in 1988 that brought Benazir Bhutto to power had a turnout of only 40 percent. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won his so-called landslide in 1997, only 35 per cent of Pakistanis went to the polls. The heavily circumscribed election of 2002 under President Pervez Musharraf was said to have brought out 41 per cent but that figure may be open to doubt.
On Monday, February 18, 2008 when Pakistan goes to the polls again, the turnout may well be below 30 per cent, as threats of terrorism scare the population from coming out in large numbers. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto took the excitement out of this election for many Pakistanis. The absence of Nawaz Sharif and his brother from the races also detracts from the validity of the process. Musharraf’s falling popularity among Pakistanis at large will be reflected in the turnout and the results this time around. He may well lose in the long run. He has promised a “free, fair, and safe” elections. But the real losers on Election Day will be the people of Pakistan, deprived of participating in a truly unfettered election.
Private TV channels will do their best to cover the voting. But the threat of controls and sanctions weighs heavily on their operations. PTV will do what is expected of it, toe the official line. Word of mouth, what Franz Fanon called “the native telephone”, will prevail in the end. No amount of government controls or threats can silence that. No matter what the announced party results are on February 19th, in the end the people of Pakistan will win. I hope it is not too long in coming.