With the prospects of nuclear war in South Asia now receding, it is back to predictably depressing business as usual. After a rare show of national unity in the face of an external threat, Pakistan’s government and opposition are once again at each other’s throats, engaging in the empty point-scoring that increasingly passes for debate in the national discourse, and once again demonstrating their lack of interest in the actual work of governing the country. It has only been about a week since Imran Khan was hailed as a statesman and being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and yet he and his party seem to be reverting to type, haranguing their opponents as if they were still standing atop a container in Islamabad rather than occupying the highest offices of state. Almost a year into its tenure, the PTI government still appears to be stuck in Opposition mode, focusing its energies on attacking its political antagonists rather than addressing the myriad issues Pakistan is confronting.
A case in point comes from an exchange witnessed in the National Assembly earlier this week that was remarkable for its pettiness, even by Pakistani standards. Responding to a speech in which Bilawal Bhutto criticized the government for its failure to initiate a timely crackdown against proscribed organizations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Finance Minister Asad Umer attacked the PPP leader on two grounds; first, Umer criticized Bilawal for using his mother’s name (Bhutto) instead of his father’s (Zardari) and second, he attacked Bilawal for delivering his speech in English and reproducing an Indian narrative about Pakistan, suggesting that this was done to signal willingness to work with shadowy foreign masters.
For some, the most surprising thing about this back-and-forth was Asad Umer’s involvement in it; often considered to be one of the more sophisticated leaders in the PTI, Umer’s speech on the floor of the National Assembly demonstrated how he was no stranger to the confrontational form of container politics perfected by his colleagues in the party. Unfortunately, what he also showed was that there is really not much to differentiate him from the bumbling rhetorical idiocy of many of his peers. After all, just days earlier Fayyaz Chauhan was rightly forced to resign from his position as the Punjab Government’s Information Minister after making derogatory and hurtful comments about Hindus, and the PTI has long been home to individuals who have been more than happy to say inappropriate things in their quest to denigrate their opponents. At a time when Pakistan’s economic troubles seem to be worsening, and when there are whispers about the Finance Minister’s ability to actually rectify the situation, Umer’s decision to involve himself in the cut and thrust of Assembly-floor politics is frankly puzzling.
The problematic nature of Asad Umer’s intervention becomes even more apparent when parsing the content of his speech. First, whatever his intention may have been, the message being sent by Umer when he criticized Bilawal Bhutto for his choice of surname was undeniably misogynistic. By suggesting that a person could never take their mother’s name, and that doing so was illegitimate, Asad Umer was simply reinforcing patriarchal tropes about the role of women in the family and society at large. It was a very public demonstration of the casual sexism that suggests women and their achievements will always be secondary to men’s, and that no matter what a woman may do she and her children must always be defined by their relationship with her husband or partner. Naming conventions are reflective of deep-rooted attitudes towards gender roles in society and attacking Bilawal for defying these norms, while denigrating his mother in the process, cannot be seen as anything other than a reinforcement of the patriarchal order. That Asad Umer made his comments on the eve of the Aurat March, in which tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Pakistan to demand their rights, was particularly insensitive.
Second, Asad Umer’s criticism of Bilawal for speaking in English is particularly absurd when considering how it was articulated. Putting to one side the fact that English is one of Pakistan’s official languages, and that parliamentary debates were conducted in English until the 1970s, and that the Foreign Minister himself responded to Bilawal’s speech in English, and that the PTI and its leadership themselves constantly tweet and speak in English, Asad Umer’s completely unwarranted accusation that Bilawal’s choice of language was meant to appease alleged foreign masters is both dangerous and irresponsible. This past week has seen the initiation of a crackdown on extremist organizations allegedly involved in cross-border militancy and terrorism, and Bilawal was doing nothing more than asking the government why action had not been taken earlier. To claim this is repeating an ‘Indian narrative’ is to suggest the government itself is doing the same through its actions. However, as pointed out by a number of observers, the double-standard at work here is painfully obvious; when the PML-N and the Dawn news organization were raked over the coals by the PTI and its political partners for allegedly leaking news of a meeting in which the civilian leadership had asked the military to take action against militant groups, the accusation made then was that the Sharifs and Dawn had engaged in treason. A similar logic appears to be at work to discredit what Bilawal Bhutto said in the National Assembly. Yet, now that the PTI government appears to be doing precisely what Nawaz Sharif had reportedly suggested when the Dawn Leaks scandal first broke, it becomes even harder to take seriously accusations that those who ask for action against militancy are somehow working against the national interest. If anything, it further highlights the incoherence and hypocrisy at the heart of the PTI’s politics.
Asad Umer’s reputation, already strained by his poor handling of the economy, is likely to be further tarnished by this latest episode. For many, it simply reaffirms the idea that the PTI is not different from its opponents when it comes to relying on rhetorical stunts over substantive politics. Also important is how, rather than rebuking his Finance Minister or even remaining silent, Imran Khan doubled down on Asad Umer’s remarks and endorsed them. Those hoping for a change of tone or shift in direction after the events of the previous weeks are setting themselves up for disappointment.