The need for change

You can either have a true democracy or great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few because you can’t have both.

Zafar Hilaly August 15, 2012

You can either have a true democracy or great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few because you can’t have both. Once 22 families monopolised the national wealth in Pakistan and even if that number has since grown, the trend has not changed. The power the rich exercise is hugely disproportionate to their numbers and belies the claim that in democracy only the masses count.

Because the rich get to call the shots, they have worked it out so that they don’t have to pay taxes and use their influence and the strength of money to buy votes and perpetuate structures that suit them. Hence, neither the common man nor democracy can flourish.

But that’s not the only reason why ‘democracy’ has failed. It is a melancholic truth that politicians, with some honourable exceptions, approach the problems of the country with the one-dimensional subtlety of a comic strip. They falsify degrees; commit larceny and the disdain they have for parliament is evident in their dismal attendance record. The message that the (national) cake is finished and there is nothing left to rob hasn’t reached them, judging by their profligate lifestyle.

They revel in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, although it has made them hostages of the party leader who they pledged to follow wherever he leads them even if it is over the cliff. And, although they claim they abhor dictators, they forget that unlimited power, whether invested in a dictator or an elected prime minister is a recipe for disaster because it corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart and confounds understanding.

All three pillars of the state — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary — are held in varying degrees of contempt by the populace. If the politicians seem to be leading at the moment, the judges are catching up fast; hence, it’s likely to be a close race — a photo finish. Except, there is no ‘finish’ line; it’s an endless race because the next lot of politicians and judges will be like peas from the same pod, neither refreshingly different nor markedly better and with the same worldly imperfections, directionless whimsies and irresistible suicidal urges.

Some counsel patience; and homilies on the subject of patience are on view on a daily basis on television. “We must learn to walk before we can run”; “Rome was not built in a day” and “Patience is a virtue” are repeated ad nauseam, mostly to explain away broken promises and gross incompetence and why the current system has failed. They forget that patience is not necessarily a virtue; it’s a form of despair disguised as a virtue. Considering that we don’t have much time, why do they assume we have a capacity for waiting?

Man has a natural tendency towards evil; here, it’s more than just a ‘natural tendency’ — it’s genetic. Other societies, too, have laws to prevent and punish violators; however, our laws are for form’s sake, for show, as it were, and observed mostly in the breach. Hence, in our culture, vice predominates. And the more restrictions that are placed on it, the greater is the speed with which it spreads, so that today, it has enveloped all of society. From the humble rehri wala, to the tirelessly acquisitive rich; from a local political worker to a president, all are tainted; nor are judges excluded, or the clergy.

Lest the public thinks it can escape the blame by assuming the role of the aggrieved innocent, it’s worth recalling that ‘a people get the leadership they deserve’. Or, as I prefer, ‘you asked for it, so don’t complain when you get it good and hard’.

If we think that we have an option to set matters right merely by holding an election and replacing the father MNA by his son or son-in-law, it’s an illusion. Any society unable to differentiate between illusion and reality is considered to be at the tail-end of its existence.

The fact is we need a change. But the prospect of change is viewed with alarm. ‘Reform, reform. Aren’t things bad enough already?’ Others fear that change, once introduced, would be difficult to stop and we may end up worse off. However, in the end, change is unavoidable and we don’t need to think of ourselves as helpless victims. If it is carried out thoughtfully, it can only be for the good.

If we don’t change, what lies in store is a civil war, in which transcendental extremism will bring about sub-human cruelties on an inhuman scale. Fed on religious ardour, the war will brook no compromise. So we might as well have a go at orderly change before we are forced into a calamitously disorderly one.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2012.