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.