With a kind word and a gun

Published: October 17, 2011

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. The writer can be reached at http://twitter.com/#!/laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

In a recent column, one of Pakistan’s best-known writers has advised that both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari should resign their positions in order to allow fresh talent to emerge from within the ranks of their respective parties.

There are at least two obvious problems with this view. The first is that if either of the two gentlemen were in the habit of taking sensible advice, well-meaning pundits would not be advising them to quit their day jobs. The second is that there is no reason to believe that somebody more desirable would replace either of the two.

Let me try to flesh out these observations.

Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif both stand at the peak of their respective political parties today. Both are around sixty years old which means that in the absence of unfortunate accidents and prolonged visits to Lahore during dengue season, each can look forward to at least two more glorious decades of active leaderdom. Why oh why then would either of them quit their posts? As Mel Brooks once pointed out: “It’s good to be the king!”

The hidden assumption behind the advice being dished out is that politicians should be in politics only to serve the national cause. As an ideal, there is nothing wrong with this assumption. But as a working explanation of what drives our elected representatives, it leaves much to be desired. Instead, the self-evident fact is that our politicians are in politics primarily to maximise their self-interest.

I don’t mean to imply that Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif actually don’t care about this country. In fact, I am quite sure that each of them — in his own way — cares deeply for Pakistan. Each of them probably also firmly believes that what he is doing is in Pakistan’s best interests. Merely telling them that their continued leadership is not helping the country is therefore unlikely to have any effect on them. How then does one proceed?

In Brian de Palma’s epic movie, The Untouchables, Al Capone explains to his slightly dimmer colleagues that “you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word”. Much the same secret of success applies to Pakistan.

Let me be very clear about one thing: I do not mean to condone or suggest any sort of violence against our elected leaders. Instead, my point is that like any other rational individuals, politicians will change when they are forced to change, not otherwise. More specifically, our leaders will change only when the consequences of their follies imperil their comfortable perches, not before.

Let me return now to the second flaw. As already noted, there is absolutely no evidence that the removal of either Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif will result in the ascent to power of the Pakistani equivalent of Marcus Aurelius. I concede the point that the ranks of both the PPP and the PML-N are full of would-be saviours (not to mention those saviours who have already had their 15 minutes of fame). However, none of those guys has a plan for rescuing this country. Instead, their argument is that if by some miracle they were placed in power, they would exercise all powers for the good of this country and somehow, magically fix everything, because they are “good people.” And if you believe that, I have a nice one-bedroom minar opposite Badshahi Masjid to sell you; has a fabulous garden view.

What then are we left with? Should we all just throw up our hands and join the serried ranks looking elsewhere? Well, that’s a personal call. But if you want politicians to behave more sensibly, don’t just write columns: instead make sure that they get punished for behaving stupidly. And if there are no mechanisms in place to punish them, then fight for the establishment of those mechanisms. And if the mechanisms already in place don’t work too well at punishing politicians, then fight to fix those mechanisms.

Let me be clearer. The primary mechanism for punishing lousy politicians is to vote them out of power. In order to do that though, you’ve got to have a viable democracy. Which in turn means that you’ve got to keep your democracy functioning long enough to vote people out of power rather than pressing the reset button after every failure and distributing sweets when the 111 Brigade comes marching in.

I’m not just being flippant here. Those of us who do not have the option of running for office still have the option of helping establish democracy in multiple ways. One way is to grit our teeth and not join the chorus asking for midterm elections. A second way is to push for elections in those areas where elections are not being held; like, for example, in the case of local government bodies. A third way is to participate via the media in exposing those government shenanigans which do come to our notice. A fourth way is to participate via civil society in those social causes which we believe in so that politicians are at least under some pressure to respond to the issues which are truly important.

I could go on but the object of this column is not to write a primer on civics. Instead, the object of this column is to argue that we should keep our “is assumptions” separate from our “wish assumptions” and not confuse facts with fantasy. Our politicians are self-interested individuals: that is a fact of life. If we want them to be different, we will have to force them to be different: merely expressing a desire that they should be different is no help.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2011.

Reader Comments (20)

  • H
    Oct 17, 2011 - 9:46PM

    excellent. finally a voice of reason offering logic and solutions, not another voice swelling the chorus of complaints, angry outbursts and Christmas wish lists!

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  • Raza
    Oct 17, 2011 - 9:46PM

    Good one! From the looks of it (haalaat), we need to hammer the “primer on civics” for a few years before we (Pakistan kaum) understand the point u r trying to make.

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  • Parvez
    Oct 17, 2011 - 10:46PM

    Nicely argued but on finishing the read I distinctly got the impression you are feeding the reader with a sugar coated pill asking from them to do the almost impossible.
    An important person (they are all the same) many years back told me something I will never forget, he said ‘ Keep their (peoples) belly with just enough and their needs always wanting – otherwise they will become a problem.’ Our leaders have managed to do this pretty well, so how do you expect this half fed belly to protest and try change the system (hand) that controls him. His priorities are his belly and his meagre needs.
    Let us be honest, the call and the change must come from the top – and there in lies the rub.
    I may disagree with you but I thoroughly enjoy reading you.

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  • gp65
    Oct 17, 2011 - 10:48PM

    Excellent article. Both the assumptions that you have challenged are spot on. There is one more point that I would like to make.

    Democracy needs a feedback mechanism. Politicians need to actually see which policies were rejected , which policies were in tune with people’s wish through the ballot box. This will put pressure on incompetent politicians to get their act together if they want to be re-elected. Now if the way that people lose power is not through the ballot but because they step down in response to an editorial – this feedback loop is shortcircuited.

    In terms of responsibility, people also have a responsibility to vote for people not based on ethnic alignments but rather based on performance of politicians. This takes time. In India for the first 45 years, most people voted for their castes/religion. But over a period of time people realized this was not helping them and they started voting for performance. 45 years may seem like a long time but it is othing in the life of a country. Also even as people were voting castes , all political parties would put up a candidate of the dominant religion/caste – so there was a degree of feedback loop even in those 45 years which was performance based.

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  • sadhana
    Oct 17, 2011 - 11:36PM

    It is a good change from 10 years ago where the poignancy of some Urdu couplet about some blotched dawn was deemed sufficient as analysis/opinion.

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  • Falcon
    Oct 17, 2011 - 11:41PM

    Faisal-
    The point that you are trying to make is correct. However, timing is a key constraint in any endeavor. At this point, this slow paced ‘systematic improvement’ is unlikely to yield the timely results because we are running very high risk of social, economic, educational, and geopolitical failure and the unfortunate thing is it is not the most privileged of us who will see the ramifications of slow change, it is the most suppressed of this society whose generations will have to suffer through this.

    So, there are times when you improve the system and there are times that call for dramatically re-vamping the system. I am afraid we have arrived at the later. People don’t change overnight and same goes for our leaders. We need a third political solution, period!

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  • Oct 17, 2011 - 11:45PM

    Well written and agree with you completely specially about the part regarding gritting our teeth and voting out people we dont like!

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  • Faisal
    Oct 17, 2011 - 11:49PM

    I m going to steal a line from Louis CK shamelessly…. We should have a few lions in the NA for example, and politicians don’t know where they are. Anyone shows stupidity is eaten by a lion, politicians will have to be smart. N-league will be eaten up in days. Recommend

  • Imran kahn-khan
    Oct 18, 2011 - 1:54AM

    As Mel Brooks once pointed out: “It’s good to be the king!”
    By quoting Mel Brooks, a jew, to further your argument, you have proven to be an agent of the zionist!

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  • ayesha
    Oct 18, 2011 - 2:10AM

    @Falcon:
    “People don’t change overnight and same goes for our leaders. We need a third political solution, period!”

    Well the government of technocrats has also been tried several times has it not – to bring drastic change. But unless the leader in charge is not accountable to the people who elect him/her then the drastic change could be in a direction that is totally away from people’s best interests – as it happened with Zia. The gun and drug culture as well as drastic increase in Wahabi madarsas which are the legacy of the Zia reime was a drastic change but it did not help Pakistan.

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  • MarkH
    Oct 18, 2011 - 3:04AM

    Sigh. I got a little redundant in my previous post causing the length to annoy myself a little. Hopefully it gets posted alongside this.
    I already know, try to ignore it.

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  • XX
    Oct 18, 2011 - 5:49AM

    Oh and you are what, a lawyer? So ‘enforcing democracy’ mean giving amnesty to people with very serious crime cases against them? You don’t think they should face their cases and be held accountable according to the rule of law? Yeah, some lawyer you must be. We all know just what type of lawyer you are exactly.

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  • MAA
    Oct 18, 2011 - 8:51AM

    very good article.the author seances the actual problem of our society and its remedy.

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  • Raza
    Oct 18, 2011 - 9:10AM

    Problem is the people. Go through the comments an you’ll see. Oh, you don’t? So there, that’s the point.

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  • Nasrat Baloch
    Oct 18, 2011 - 11:17AM

    I have been following the events/happenings in this country since mid sixties(60s) and now for the last two years I am constantly reading various articles from different analysts. I am now, somehow ,convinced that either these columnists/analysts are purposely deviating from the real problem of this country or they are so naive. Are the politicians are solely responsible for all the mess we in today?So why on earth we just putting all the blames on them and why we dont have the courage to write the truth.We must be realistic enough to put the history of this unfortunate country straight. Start from the day 1; what happened with the founder of this state? His death/final journey- controversial. Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination – controversial!!!! it goes on and on till the last but not least the killing of BB( keep it in your mind that all killing of three ex PMs take place in Rawalpindi). Can all Martial laws imposed on this country be justified? Today who is actually running this country? please be honest with yourself and to this country and write the facts so that the young generation must know what has been happening to this country and who has done what.

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  • Ishrat Salim
    Oct 18, 2011 - 5:10PM

    100 % agree with Nasrat Baluch…beside, ” democracy to take root is constrained by tribal & feudal power base which sees reforms as a threat to its political & economic benefit “…this is what is the scenario in our country…hence, until this power base is diluted….things will never change….they are & will be ruling the roost….

    Feisal Naqvi Sb….you hv not mentioned one word in favor of ” education “…which will enlighten the ignorants & the un-educated class who are the main sufferrer for the past 64 years….we cannot wait for another 64 years…the whole world has changed & changing on daily basis & your proposal is based on normal / regular situation…need radical change for the betterment of the poor people of this country….if they are better-off, we will be peaceful too…

    But I hv one question Mr Feisal….there is no ” democracy in CHINA ” & they came 2 years afte us..yet why & how hv they become a super power & 2nd economic giant….?? Singapore introduce democratic system after 2 decades & today they are an example & envy of many countries….

    Nevertheless, enjoyed yr article….& look forward to yr response to my question as requested in my para abv…..Recommend

  • Ammad
    Oct 18, 2011 - 8:57PM

    @ Baloch
    Please let the professionals of our society deal with autopsy, as you can see they have taken as to great heights over the past few years. Jeay MEdia!Recommend

  • Mohammed Bilal Khan
    Oct 18, 2011 - 10:26PM

    Well-written piece.

    One strategy springs to mind that is simple enough. But not easy.

    Collective organization is one of the founding principles of democracy. Used properly, it can bring about massive social transformation. Collective organizations along the lines of associations or societies whose purpose is social reformation can harness the energy of the masses into something both powerful and purposeful. I’m referring, for example, to an organized group of people with a specific aim of lobbying their MPs for reform. Trade unions are perfect examples. But the same principle can be applied to an Association for Public Education Reform.

    So, why aren’t Pakistanis organizing for change? In part, they are. However, collective organization in the form of sporadic protests and long marches is not effective. It certainly grabs attention and the media laps it up. But such movements are unplanned and spontaneous; they don’t result in long-term change.

    Also, before people organize for reform they need to realize reform is needed. An educated person may think that the need for public education reform is “obvious” . But it’s not so obvious to an illiterate person.

    On the bright side, it’s not as if there isn’t a historical precedent for such reform movements. The America Progressive Era (from the late 19th century to the early 20th century) comes to mind. It was a different time and place but the political system that the reformers operated in was the same: representative democracy.

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  • rizwan
    Oct 19, 2011 - 3:17AM

    give change a chance, support imran khan and stop voting for these rogues again and again. these power hungry politicians have nothing to do with common ppl of pakistan .they are leeches and they will keep sucking the blood of poor ppl of pakistan. they will take first flight out of pakistan when vultures will attack our cripple country. so wake up before its too late. change is around the corner, needs a push.

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  • Feisal Naqvi
    Oct 19, 2011 - 9:00AM

    Thank you all for your comments. Good or bad, they are all appreciated.

    @gp65 — I agree with you that democracy needs a feedback mechanism. That is why local governance is so important and that is why the absence of local government breeds further frustration with democracy. Soon to be the subject of a column.

    @Falcon — I’ve already lived through several of these ‘we don’t have enough time” interventions. Unfortunately, we have no option but to wait things out because unless a technocratic intervention stays for a few decades (like singapore), all of its achievements get reversed when it leaves (see e.g. our politicians and Musharraf era reforms).

    @XX — I have no idea where you’re getting your conclusions from; certainly not from my column.

    @Ishrat Salim — I wasn’t trying to provide a comprehensive analysis; obviously education is v important. Also so far as the Singapore/China models are concerned, each country is unique. However, we have already gone far enough down the democratic road that an authoritarian system like China’s is not an option for us. We have to find our own way.

    @Rizwan — if IK wants my vote, he will have to earn it. Right now, I don’t think he’s a serious contender.

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