As the curtain finally came down on the five-year run of the PPP follies, the people of Pakistan woke up to the news that they now had new rulers. An interim prime minister was eventually announced by the Election Commission and new chief ministers also emerged in each of the provinces.
But as the now familiar cast of jokers faded away, a new series of questions emerged. If a caretaker federal administration can manage with 14 cabinet members, why did the democratically-elected regime have a cabinet of 60-plus people? If caretaker cabinets can include people who seem to know what they are doing — Ahmer Bilal Soofi as the law minister, for one — then why did democracy afflict us with idiots as ministers? Should we not extend or make permanent the caretaker system? Is it not obvious that we are ill-suited for democracy, that our people will only return cheats and fakers at the polls?
Then there is the national lamentation which has erupted over the shenanigans of our returning officers (RO). In case you haven’t heard, various ROs have deemed fit to interrogate candidates over the extent of their religious knowledge and even disqualify a few for not being able to recite the appropriate duas. Oh, the shame! Oh, the horror.
People of my country, chill the hell out. Just because a few odd judicial officers have gone bananas does not mean we need to start harrumphing like an elderly Sindh Club member confronted by a fly in his mulligatawny.
I’m not disputing the fact that some returning officers have gone overboard. But we are talking about a process involving the scrutiny of 24,000-plus candidates by 700-odd returning officers. Every process involves error, particularly any process which involves decision-making by hundreds of separate individuals. That is why the election laws provide for an appeal against the decision of the returning officer. Indeed, returning officers bent upon a frolic of their own have already been sternly reprimanded by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of the Lahore High Court to concentrate on the documents placed before them and to avoid free-ranging inquiries.
On a personal note, I appeared recently in Jhang to challenge the nomination papers of a candidate. And while I was joined in my challenge by a lawyer representing an emphatically religious party (the ASWJ), the returning officer there made it abundantly clear that he would not be a party to “trial by dua”. More importantly, the assembled locals watching the proceedings also made it clear that they did not want the RO to test the religious credentials of a candidate.
My point here is simple: democracy is a process as much as it is an ideal. That process requires continuity of operation so that it can steadily improve itself through a process of trial and error. We need to bury this false ideal of a government run by disinterested philosophers, once and for all.
But why, you may ask? Shouldn’t public office be reserved for the best of the best? Shouldn’t our leaders be sadiq and ameen?
Well, duh! Of course they should. But as the punch line to the famous Punjabi joke goes, per kithon? Where are you going to find these benevolent dictators, these disinterested geniuses? And what guarantee do you have that they will return benevolent and disinterested?
Newsflash: being a politician is a pain in the butt. As a member of the national and provincial assemblies, you are directly answerable to hundreds and thousands of people and indirectly answerable to every chacha, mama and phuppa of those constituents, each of whom thinks it is your express duty to make sure that their kid gets admitted without merit, that their idiot son gets a job, that their murderous cousin gets bail and that their utterly frivolous disputes are resolved to their satisfaction.
It is time for us to give up this pipedream of perfect leaders and perfect politicians. We are an imperfect people and our representatives will always be as imperfect as we are. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept crooks as parliamentarians. But it does mean that we accept that this system will not be fixed overnight. It will require time, effort and repeated cycles of elections and accountability for us to get a better system just like it will require time, effort and repeated cycles of elections and accountability for us to get a better breed of politicians. Gnashing our teeth and wailing is not going to speed that process along.
In his book The Slow Fix, author Carl Honore talks about the modern-day cult of the quick fix and the damage it causes. His point is simple: complex, multi-factor problems cannot be resolved by waving a magic wand. Instead, complex problems require a slow, multi-pronged approach which accepts the fact that any sustainable improvement will only be the result of a gradual and incrementalist approach.
I can’t speak for others but as a former devotee of the political quick fix, I have certainly had enough. Yes, the political system in Pakistan sucks. Yes, we are led by thieves and rogues. Yes, our Constitution is a much-abused document, grossly defaced by various military dictators. But can we just get on with it? Nothing is going to get fixed overnight and the armchair generals who keep on clogging the opinion pages with instant fixes (A presidential system! Thirty-five provinces! Nothing but Sharia!) need to be put out to pasture.
There is an old saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. We didn’t keep our faith in democracy 20 years ago. But the next best time is now.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2013.