Is the current political discourse and model of governance appropriate for navigating the country towards a better future? Would it not push it into greater political uncertainty and yield further space to non-democratic institutions? The non-stop war of words between the government and the opposition and a dysfunctional parliament that is more a political battleground than a forum for oversight and serious legislation, raises serious concerns.
As it is, Pakistan’s journey toward democracy has been rocky, but with the type of political discourse the leadership is displaying, it would continue to yield further space to non-democratic forces. The situation could get worse with ramifications on the economy and foreign policy that are already visible. Claims of economic turnaround, so proudly being trumpeted, would only remain on paper and fail to touch the lives of the poor.
The politics of extreme antagonism may well be a global trend as witnessed even in some of the older and mature democracies. But the institutions, legal framework and traditions of these countries are so strong that they can bear these political digressions and yet retain their democratic character. There is, however, a big difference between criticising and humiliating one’s political opponents and that seems to be conveniently overlooked.
Undoubtedly, corruption poses a serious challenge and needs to be dealt with. On this there can be no two opinions but constantly harping on it has a serious downside. It loses its importance, vitiates the political and cultural environment and portrays as though it is a country of dishonest leadership. To bracket the entire political leadership of any party or an institution as corrupt, would not only be highly inaccurate and unfair but has grave consequences as well. Furthermore, it affects the country’s image that already stands bruised due to several factors.
For the PTI government that is desperately seeking foreign and local investment, it would be analogous to putting the brakes on the economy. Let the courts and NAB deal with corruption, as no government can be the prosecutor and judge in a democratic country. In any case the NAB is already reputed for being overactive so best is to leave it to the judiciary.
The opposition party’s share of weakening democracy is no less. With their top leaders gravely unwell and facing serious legal cases, it is highly unlikely that they will be in a position to lead their parties. They have played their role and should gracefully pass the baton to the younger generation. This tendency to cling to power is a major weakness of leaders especially of developing countries and we are no exception. Whereas, individuals play a predominant role in building political parties and strengthening the country, it is strong institutions that provide continuity and depth to a state. PML-N and PPP’s choice of successive leadership — Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto, respectively — revolves around dynastic politics. Both these parties need to get past the tendency of over-centralising. They need to broaden merit-based power sharing that will breed new life and attract greater support from the people. The same advice is applicable to the regional political parties.
The PTI may be holding more frequent party meetings but the PM’s style of leadership has led to over-centralisation of power.
It seems we have still not realised that democratic development is the only sustainable solution to address the complex problems that Pakistan faces whether it be the economy, national security or earning respect among the community of nations. Linked to that is the development of credible institutions that include the judiciary, full respect for the rule of law and last but not the least economic, social and human development.
Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa’s efforts in raising the efficiency of the judiciary have been commendable. By clearing a huge backlog of criminal cases and introducing technology, he has shown the way to improve efficiency and also deter corruption. Additionally, he has given clarity to NAB’s power to arrest and has set high standards of judicial acumen for his successors to build on.
The role of the civil society in strengthening human rights organisations, protecting minorities and raising awareness among the masses about their rights and obligations has to be stepped up. Our civil society remains weak and has no grass-root following. The students are clamouring to revive the unions. These were banned during the martial law regime of General Zia and even the civilian governments, with the exception of the PPP, found it convenient for the unions to lie dormant. PM Imran Khan has recently indicated that the government would allow student unions after formulating certain guidelines. Hopefully, the government would not take too long in addressing this problem and not impose unnecessary restrictions. Student unions, if properly run, act as nurseries for the development of future leaders. Ever since the unions were banned, educational institutions have been infiltrated by political and militant organisations vitiating the academic environment. Instead of breeding an intellectual and academic atmosphere, some of these colleges and universities are literally under siege of these outfits.
The support of the people is paramount to achieve these democratic goals and such support must also be built on respecting the rights of the people. Successive governments, including the present one, have not given sufficient attention to nation building. This clearly is its responsibility and should be a high priority for a nation that physically came into being just over seven decades ago. The present government has become too Punjab-centric and is preoccupied in defending the chief minister at the cost of other provinces. Its close working relationship with the military and elite business community are its pluses and so are its concerns for the poor. But these need to be balanced by a greater focus on parliament, other provinces and broader segments of the society. After all, Pakistan is a federation and its future depends on strengthening democratic institutions and practices. Otherwise we would only aggravate the dysfunctional and chaotic trends in our society.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2019.