Foreign Policy Blogs

Think: ‘Independent’


In its 65 years of independence, this election year was the first time Pakistan managed to vest power from one democratically elected government to the next – this being the first time the process was not interrupted by a coup d’etat. This is also the first time Pakistan saw the advent of a strong third political party. (Previously, Pakistan was dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party — the lineage of the Bhutto/Zardari family and Pakistan Muslim League-N — party of Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the newly elected Premier of Pakistan.)

This election year, there were several voices that refused to be drowned by the regular humdrum and created their independent headway. There were numerous candidates that were contesting the elections independent of any party affiliations; one such candidate was Muhammad Jibran Nasir (contesting for seats in both the National and Provincial Assemblies – NA-250 and PP-113).

Nasir is a 26-year-old lawyer raised in Karachi with no family history of politics; his grandfather was not a politician and neither was his father. His family does not own hoards of property in rural Sind, allowing him feudal patronage. At the start of his election campaign, he had 49,000 rupees in his savings account, 25,000 of which he used for his election campaign, which is slightly less than three months minimum wage in this country. His life, current job and future prospects were threatened by his drive for a political career.

In a country where you are only safe if you choose to fly under the radar, why did Nasir choose to step out of his comfortable life and take on the seasoned politicians? I was able to ask Nasir just that in an email interview. Here are the responses he sent from Karachi:

What got you involved in politics?

Life as an average urban Pakistani got me involved in politics because that means you not only observe but also suffer from corruption, armed terrorism, street crime, social, cultural, political and religious intolerance. Being involved in social welfare with relief work for flood victims – a natural disaster – and survivors of the Abbas Town Blast – a man-made catastrophe – I was exposed to such realities in an intimate manner. At the same time, the media exposed me to relatively more civilized societies, who may not be perfect, but have progressed because public opinion matters there, accountability exists and people are not just politically opinionated but also politically active.

From your polio drops to your pension, Pakistan gives you everything, so when do we decide to give back? The idea was to get actively involved and also discover how easy, difficult or impossible it was to participate in politics the “unconventional” way, i.e., purely on the basis of ideology and [with] virtually no resources. It was an overwhelming and highly motivating experience, to say the least.

Did you have an affinity towards any political party before these elections? Why did you decide to run independently and not join an existing party to ensure you got elected/funding?

I have supported MQM (the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a party with strong mobilizing powers in Karachi) and PTI (the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, new emerging party set up and run by ex-cricketer Imran Khan) in the past but was left disillusioned by them when I started closely following their actions in and outside the parliament. With the latter, it was only after reading up on the performance of their Chairman (Imran Khan) during his four years in parliament, that I realized how we support and vote out of ignorance and never bother to critical analyze manifestoes and policy decisions which our education begs of us. As with the MQM, it was incidents like May 12, 2007 (declared a “Black Day” when riots erupted throughout Karachi on account of the Lawyers Movement) and the rigging I observed during the 2008 elections which made it clear to me that regardless of how progressive or liberal their policies may be, the way they conduct their politics is not conducive for a truly democratic society where there will be people holding opposite views to yours.

I started thinking about contesting elections towards the end of January 2013, and always knew that I would do so independently. I wanted to experience how much one person can achieve on their own in the most difficult of circumstances — that is, without any political, social or monetary support – and at the same time, talk about all those controversial issues that big political parties shy away from for risk of losing their vote bank.

How much does one need to run a good campaign, and how did you fund yours?

To file your election nomination papers, you need to submit a security deposit of 4,000 rupees for the National Assembly and 2,000 for the Provincial Assembly. Besides that, I spent around 150,000 rupees, out of which I personally funded 75,000 rupees and the rest were donated by friends and family. Legally, you are permitted to spend up to 2.5 million rupees, but I was only able to raise the said some, and I guess that also translated into the actual number of votes I got. Given the limited resources, social media became my main tool; the idea was to use it as effectively as possible. All posters and videos were created by my friends and me, as a collective effort, using basic tools such as an ordinary webcam.

Politics isn’t the safest career path in Pakistan. We see political figureheads threatened and some murdered every day. What were your fears when entering politics? 

I had all the usual fears. Life, job and future prospects — this was a leap of faith in all ways. Living as an ordinary citizen in Karachi with no security protocol, I know all the notoriously dangerous spots and have to continuously look in my rearview mirror and keep a look out. Your life here in Pakistan is cheap; a mugger will make up 1,000 rupees off of the cell phone he snatches away from you, while he shoots you for it. I continuously and openly discussed sensitive issues such as blasphemy, marital rape, forced conversions, hate speech in madarassahs (religious schools), rights for Ahmedis (a minority group in Pakistan that consider themselves Muslim, but the constitution of Pakistan states otherwise) and even criticized certain parties for having military wings.

Might as well do what you believe in, advocate good values and put a higher price tag on your life.

If you had to describe your political manifesto in five points, how would you describe it?

  1. Secular Constitution
  2. Ending hate speech
  3. Free education and health care and depoliticizing the institutions that provide it
  4. Regulating and eventually ending the use of weapons
  5. Good foreign relations with U.S. and India. One has been a close military ally, the other has been made out to be our biggest nemesis. In the 21st century we can’t afford having bitter relations with any of the two.

Are you disheartened by the fact that you didn’t win a seat in these elections? How will you continue political efforts outside of parliament?

Winning and losing is a definite outcome of any competition. The passion to win should be there as opposed to the greed. As for my efforts, I have already started work on forming a Karachi based think tank and will be producing policy papers on rape laws in Pakistan and family law for minorities in Pakistan as the first two projects and use these papers to eventually push for legislation in Parliament.

There were only two major political parties Pakistan over before these elections. This election year saw the advent of a third: Pakistan-Tehreek-i-Insaaf, run by ex-cricketer, Imran Khan. He managed to sway a lot of the “educated elite” towards politics and got them involved. During the political campaigns, there was word that your party workers were being harassed by his. You responded in a video message. Tell us about that and why you believe you are different from Imran Khan — who seems to be appealing to the same vote bank you were.  

If I was appealing to the same vote bank, then I do not think I had any chance at all or would have even managed the votes I got. We give and embrace tags like “educated,” “elite,” “progressive” and “liberal” without even studying these concepts and what they actually mean. A lot of my voters were former MQM and PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) voters, so I think my comparison just to PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf) is a bit unfair.

As for the harassment, I always said the supporters harassed me, except for one instance. I also heard of top PTI leadership calling their supporters to behave in a civil manner with other political party members and supporters. This is the political intolerance I mentioned earlier. This intolerance stems from our failure to admit that anyone else can say something right and sane besides us, or not paying heed to what the other person is saying. If you cannot take criticism, how do you expect to self reflect and improve? But I guess that maturity will come with time and I am sure PTI will develop a lot more and become much more organized by the next elections. Comparing them to PPP, PMLN and MQM is also unfair to them given they are a fairly young party in comparison.

In a piece by you in the Express Tribune in April, you said to the youth of Pakistan: “Your ignorance is worse than any drone, any terrorist attack and any corruption.” Besides this ignorance, do you think the things you listed are the root of all problems in Pakistan?

The things I listed were the popular agenda being sold by all mainstream political parties as the only evils in our society. So I just drew a comparison with them. To me, the root problems are lack of education/employment and growing intolerance due to lack of education/employment.

Would you call yourself religious? Where do you stand on minority rights, with specific focus to the rights of Christians and Ahmedi’s?

My manifesto has fairly detailed account on how I feel about minority rights. The slogan of the constitution itself was co-existence. I believe in God and follow Islam, but I don’t believe that you can only be a good Muslim by declaring every other sect infidel and condemn[ing] them to hell. Religion is personal, and [it] should be your inspiration to do good things. Imposing your brand of religion is not one of those good things.

How do you think the newly elected government will fare?

Too early to say, but as a Pakistani I will be affected by their performance, hence they have my best wishes. However, one thing is certain: their alliance with former LEJ and SSP (Lakshar-e-Jhanvi and Sipa-e-Sahaba Pakistan – both political parties that have close ties with terrorist organizations) members is not at all a good sign.



Sahar Said

Sahar, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, has obtained her Master of Laws degree from The George Washington University Law School, and worked with a non-profit in New York. She currently writes from Germany.

Sahar can be followed on Twitter @sahar_said.