Social media is rife right now with armchair analysis of the election landscape. No opinion is too controversial not to voice, and no opinion is right at this time. An interesting sub-set of the discussion online is the overseas vote.
On Wednesday, journalist Sabahat Zakaria tweeted the opinion that overseas Pakistani’s should not have the right to vote. She said, “I don’t think overseas Pakistanis should ever be allowed to vote. You can’t parachute into a system and claim it as yours. When you don’t bear the brunt of any of the troubles, you cannot expect to have a say in the direction the country takes.”
This discussion went on for miles, and Ms Zakaria was calm and collected in explaining and sticking with her view that anyone who does not have face the burden of dealing with the new leadership on Pakistani soil, should not have a right in choosing it.
However, the statement shocked and worried many Pakistani’s especially those living abroad. Saad Gulzar, an Assistant Professor at Stanford in the US tweeted in response: “While we're at it, why not strip overseas Pakistanis of their nationality? Let's also stop all DHA types from voting because they don't really "bear the brunt of any of the troubles". Oh hey, how about we prevent everyone who tweets in English from voting.”
While Ms Zakaria responded that this kind of “slippery slope” argument was a logical fallacy, her defence was weak in just quoting a term from high school debating. Just because someone used a “slippery slope” argument does not mean it is not true. If one can bar Pakistani’s living abroad from voting because they are not affected by local drama, one can bar everyone who doesn’t pay taxes because they don’t contribute to the system they are voting for, for example.
At the core is the idea that overseas Pakistani’s don’t have to deal with the fallout from elections. But do they get actually escape the problems of the country? If they do, do they not have the right to a better more productive life? Should their passport’s colour not allow them to search for a better future at home or away? Do remittances home not constitute a contribution? Does it not matter than the money they send home is used/channelled within households according to policies politicians make - politicians that they may choose to vote for?
It is true that many Pakistani’s abroad are disconnected from what is happening in Pakistan. They don’t have to deal with load shedding, checkpoints, protests, fundamentalism, corruption, bribery, harassment and even the hot weather. But so what? The rich elites escape such burdens too. The right to vote isn’t a compensation for a bad quality of life or social inequality. It’s a fundamental right wherever one is living. If overseas Pakistani’s are arguably not contributing to the economy, or society, there are many many people right here at home that aren’t either (nor are they sending millions in remittances).
There are benefits for Pakistan from having a large and wealthy diaspora and the anti-vote argument target’s them while burying the poor and hungry diaspora (e.g. in the Middle East) with them. The benefits include informal international diplomacy, knowledge spillovers that do come home rather than a permanent brain-drain as normally assumed, remittances shifting the economic state of households, and international economic linkages. While many abroad are over-patriotic and myopic in their understanding of Pakistani leaders, they are also educated, ambitious and driven. While many abroad have surprised me with their ideas of instituting Sharia law, or supporting a another coup, many many are critical, engaged, and doing intensely important work about or for Pakistan. When any of them decide to give up their citizenship, which many do, they revoke their right to vote. But before they do, even if they are running towards the American (or Canadian or Australian dream) they have the right to vote.
There are caveats; dual citizenship is problematic: Exhibit A: Altaf Hussain. Politicians destroy everything and in-character have used and misused dual citizenships. This does not mean that everyone does. If a Pakistani can have better opportunities to travel, work and seek education though the dual citizenship, why must we try to pull the ladder from under them? Yes, it is unfair to does of us who do not have this super-power, but personally I do not want to deny a Pakistani the search of a better life.
This article was not an attempt to target the journalist that started the conversation and there is a need to have such conversations without abuse and violence. The notion, that if you are Pakistani, you have a right to vote regardless of your location, income, or monetary/social contribution, is just one opinion and her opinion is another. For me, people should be free to do what they want, without having to defend their patriotism or lack of it all the time. Sure, we want Pakistan to succeed, and be powerful and rich, and happy etc., etc. But first we want our families to be fed, clothed and happy, and overseas Pakistani’s are ensuring that.
We at home get to see the dirt and grime, poverty and danger. But the idea to throw those who do not live here out for good is similar to anti-immigrant stands in the West. They don’t want us to come in and steal the “good life” and gain franchise, and we don’t want Pakistani’s abroad to have this “good life” without losing political franchise.
The overseas cohort is more visible to us English-speaking, social-media savvy classes, and some ire is natural over the fact that they get to live in cooler climes while we sweat and toil at our less than stellar jobs. But in the end, the overseas vote is minute, and maybe inconsequential in growing population of 207 million. They don’t need to be stripped of the one right the state can provide them, when it is failing to provide so many other rights and services to them and the general population.
The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.