Pakistan General Election: Little mention of Kashmir in party manifestos puts paid to claim it is an emotive issue for people

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Finally, after a long and rather surprising wait, the main political parties in Pakistan brought out their manifestos. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was among the first to produce a highly detailed manifesto, which is fitting for a party hoping to make it back to the high table of power.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) continued to suffer its mysterious bouts of bad luck as its launch was delayed after its website was the target of anonymous hackers. The religious grouping Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) brought out a somewhat rambling manifesto that reflected the diversity of beliefs and motivations of parties that have come together under its banner.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) displayed the best marketing skills, being the last to announce its manifesto, which ensured it received considerable coverage in the media. It also has to be admitted that the PTI’s manifesto was the most well-conceived, committed itself to issues that lie at the heart of the political debate in Pakistan, including freedom of the press and government reform.

Manifestos are generally not read in detail by voters, who will vote at the crucial time under the influence of a variety of factors including primarily, biraderi and money. In Pakistan, where political parties are often dependent on a variety of outside actors, the manifestos are therefore also aimed heavily at audiences outside. Clearly, each of the mainstream national parties have put much thought into their documents. These manifestos are also more interesting more in what they choose not to say rather than what they note down.

Take the PPP manifesto for example. As befits a party that is out of power, it promises everything to everyone, including neighbours and far-off friends. Notably, the party’s central message is a powerful one, calling for Pakistan to reclaim its ‘rightful place’ in the comity of nations, a call that is likely to fall on receptive ears as Pakistan struggles with a virtual tag of being a terrorist sponsor and facilitator.

Predictably, the PPP manifesto includes language that is part and parcel of the usual academic and popular ‘recommendations’ for Pakistan including a ‘truth and reconciliation’ committee for Karachi, and for the violence prone tribal areas. It calls for an end to “violent extremism’, a phrase that has become popular in international circles, and backs ‘connectivity’ across the region.

In foreign relations, it offers the best of all worlds to China, though there is a cautionary reference to ‘transparency’ with regard to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), friendship and trade with the United States rather than aid. While it toes the ‘self-determination’ line for Kashmir, it also lays out a series of areas where India and Pakistan can cooperation including a ‘warm trade relationship” and connectivity. Kashmir is mentioned four times, in a 40-page plus document.

The PML(N)’s manifesto is built around showcasing some of its real and not-so-real successes over the past five years. The usual promises of providing uninterrupted power (so far a failure) and plentiful water (highly unlikely) apart, the document points out, with some legitimate pride, to fewer terrorist attacks (a reported drop of 271 percent) and the historic though flawed inclusion of the tribal areas into mainland Pakistan.

The party can also justifiably claim that it broke Pakistan’s threatened isolation by opening doors to Russia, the building of the CPEC and the (promised) prosperity it is likely to bring, and the new membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The PML(N)’s reference to India: There is only a token reference (two lines) to Kashmir that is even shorter than the 2013 manifesto, with the earlier reference to “UN resolutions” dropped.

The PTI’s manifesto is far more forward-looking: As befits a party that targets the youth and the middle class, even if its head is over 65 years old. Clearly, the party waited till everyone else broke out their own somewhat ‘copy pasted’ political statements.

The PTI has some new ideas which are likely to go down well with not only the electorate but also an international audience. This includes “the most ambitious education agenda in Pakistani history”, women’s empowerment, and interestingly, a revamping of bureaucracy and here’s the surprise: Lateral induction of experts. This exercise is to include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, all of which is not going to make the party very popular among the bureaucrats.

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