If sometime back someone told you that ‘only if the establishment could keep its finger out of the political pie we would be able to serve a better potion to all and benefit the people’ — there may have been takers. Not now. The overwhelming feeling is ‘only if the politicians could get their act together and be more nuanced on their occupation of choice and the seriousness attached to their function’ we could be a far better place as a country and as people.
I get a chance every now and then to interact with politicians and there are many kinds: those that are well equipped intellectually and well-rounded in their manner — some eminent lawyers, and graduates of Ivy league institutions; those that are by urban standards rustic and rural, qualified to be called electable(s) but smart in their social and interpersonal standing — how else may one otherwise gather the votes in numbers they do; and others who probably make the political elite: urbane, well-appointed and refined in their social standing but heavily tainted for their belonging to fledgling political dynasties almost endowed with a sense of entitlement to rule the country. The middle class is lightly represented and rarely goes above the mid-tier, if that. The political parties, established for long now under their dynastic progenies, are mostly devoid of democratic practices within even though they vie in its name as a value for the state and the nation. Of course they practise none of it when in power. This remains the most anti-democratic aspect of the political culture where democracy is the slogan but autocracies rule in manner and structure.
The case in point is the Daska election and the developments thereafter; and the aspect of how politics in Punjab and most of Sindh and Balochistan is structured. Sindh has the culture of feudal landlordism who double as both principal land-holders and religious icons. Together this endows limitless power of the notable families over the common Sindhis who serve them as their tillers and haris. Clearly without the patronage of those who lord over them and enable them their daily bread the existence of the common man becomes untenable. The hari’s vote thus belongs to the man who feeds them, sadly. In such a case what charade of democracy do we pursue. Balochistan has its own dynamics of tribal chiefs who in a very hardy land sit over their tribes as heads while those under them pledge their homes and hearth to their patronage. As indeed their votes.
In Punjab such cart blanche dispossession is generally not the rule since even the smallest farmer will own his land but the sense of biradari or attachment to a notable family or group endows shared eminence which comes handy in the matters of thana and the katcheri which may appear frequently in the rather rustic culture. This notability that some individuals and their families may acquire over time resides in material and familial eminence with additional clout attained through political linkages and nuisance value around an image of a local toughie — for want of a better explanation. So there will always be an ‘electable’ who will in probability win an election; or his similarly attributed opponent. They may alternate in political power over time but will essentially be the principal politicians in those settings. Whoever they attach to with on the national level becomes the political slant that they are identified with. This is the real worth of idealism in Punjab’s political association. Those that align themselves long enough with one party will ultimately begin to be identified with the ideology of that party but the level of their personal conviction may still only be superficial. We need to graduate quickly to the politics of ideology so that rather than power the level of commitment is what identifies a politician. That alone will kill party-trotting so brazen among our politicos.
Daska was one such case. The seat was persistently of the Chaththas and the Cheemas belonging to the area even as it alternated between the PML-N and the PML-Q depending where those families aligned. But once they faded away they were replaced with a newer set of electable(s) — regular with the PML-N. Those that find wealth and influence exercise both as a mark of their eminence; a sign of upward material and social mobility which also engenders clout. When unconventional political parties like the PTI come around and offer a platform, these upstarts find instant eminence by jump-starting into the political arena. When the Election Commission ordered a re-polling of NA-75 because of alleged irregularities fingers pointed towards overzealous newcomers to the process. This placed them and their party in the dock. The PTI seemingly has suffered in its image at the hands of novices who entertained hopes of instant glory.
The Sialkot leg of the PTI which itself may not have found too much success against the PML-N in the 2018 polls wasn’t going to let this one slip and overplayed their electoral hand. That is not to say that others don’t indulge in these sad excesses in conduct of the polls, but one, it isn’t as flagrant, at least not so blatant and in the eye of everyone; and two, it was more of a thing from the past where the media was not as omnipresent as it is now. With the march of time the fidelity as indeed the value system too of our political process must find greater credibility in transparency and in conduct. Then only the vote will find its due respect. Whatever might push the voters to vote a certain way is for them to discern and reflect over but to enable them to make a free choice is where the state must play its role. Education, economic emancipation and freedom from social suppression will find credibility for democracy and politics. The voter will need to be first respected for his vote to find dignity and respect.
The Election Commission must be lauded for standing up to the test. Even if voters are bound by the compulsions of existential nature and their vote is forced — it will take time to enable them total freedom — the rampant and blatant electoral embezzlement in the vote in Daska could not have been let to sustain. Such anomalies have normally been condoned by institutional inaction previously. Vote fraud was an open secret and a persistent blot on the electoral process. Voter suppression or manipulation are known factors in the politics of the electable(s) especially in rural constituencies. It was time that the afflictions were cleansed. The order to re-poll NA-75 under a cleaner administration gives hope that if institutions exercise their independence and judgment they not only add to their own credibility but of the process itself. That alone will strengthen democracy. Leaders need to transform their parties in their democratic outlook as well as their own approach to democratic values. Merely harking for more doesn’t get us anywhere.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2021.