A lifetime ago, a gentleman called Iskander Mirza threw democracy out of Pakistan. Speaking in 1958, Mirza felt free choice was unfit for a nation “only 15 per cent literate”, and vowed to draw up a new constitution “more suited to the genius” of the Pakistani people. It’s an argument shared by today’s elite: we’re a jahil people, too petty to know how to run our lives, and certainly too backward to choose the right candidate. But President Mirza, the first in a line of executive tragedies, had it wrong. Democracy is exactly suited to the genius of the people of Pakistan.
There’s a reason this idea took hold as late as it did. For much of our history, the state tried everything to prove the late major general right. It heaved and heaved against a torrent headed in the opposite direction. It denied Mujibur Rehman in 1970, with heartbreaking results. It reduced the polls to a joke in 1977, and watched people die. It held party-less elections in 1985. It rigged the elections for the same waistcoat-wearing uncles in 2002 that it bribed in 1990.
But nothing unnatural can last forever. After upending 50 years of due process, all it took really, was five years. Five years without smoke and mirrors. This was a stint of genuine civilian rule; the 1990s never was. In just five years, less than that even, the traditional parties were considered untenable, and a third option was born. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) rose to the occasion, bringing an entire generation out of apathy.
Signs of a thinking electorate have been around us a while, not that our elite pays much heed. The urban middle class is mocked as either cute or clichéd — the conceit felt towards our poor runs even deeper. Rural electorates, it’s always presumed, don’t want big ideas. They want basic facilities, or protection from local thugs, or a job for a nephew. Essentially, patronage.
But that had never been the extent of people’s aspirations. Since nothing else was offered, the discourse was never allowed to improve. It has been evident, even before the PTI began promising a Naya Pakistan, that people aspired to greater things. If the average voter sought only the politics of patronage, of thana-katchehri, of better roads and cleaner pipes, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat would still be in Islamabad. The Chaudhrys had a knack for deep-fried Punjabi constituency politics. On a federal level, they were close to the establishment and adored by the bureaucrats, the opposition was reeling, and they led a legion of heavies yet to lose even once. But in 2008, against all odds, popular opinion didn’t take personalities into account. It voted against party platform, and blew the Q-League away.
Not that relevant quarters noticed. As the only blocs that mattered, the major traditional parties were able to define what governance was meant to achieve between themselves, and that was the sum total of what democracy was likened to be.
But as we have found out thrice over, unnatural systems do not last. One-eighty million people are not meant to be dumbed down. Governance is dreaming about a better life. And it’s about ideas and manifestoes, about economics and justice and civil freedoms. But the major traditional parties did not campaign much by way of transformational change, or institution-building, or structural reform. They spoke little of electoral message, or of the country their children would inherit.
That is when Imran Khan became the solution; a man easy to caricature, and impossible to explain. A man who waded into the muck of our political arena and spoke of reforming the economy, education and industry, and detailed how he would do it. A newcomer who promoted what veterans had yet to touch: women’s participation, the environment, rights for the disabled. His Pakistan is friendly with India, Saudi Arabia and Iran in simultaneity, but shoots down every last child-murdering drone. It is an idealism Pakistan is starved for.
Most hopefully, his party is devoid of the ethnic mess that plagues us. It is the PTI that steams into Quetta and raises the Pakistani flag, rather than Sardar Akhtar Mengal flying in from Dubai to be crowned the latest saint of Baloch nationalism. Unlike Asif Zardari, it plays no Sindh card. And it is the PTI leader who says, “I take your name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi … and there is no worse enemy of Islam than you.”
Imran Khan’s past record has kept him in the nation’s consciousness. Though the press cannot keep itself from hyphenating “cricketer-turned-politician”, his most indelible mark, even as he lies hurt, is on the part of Pakistan he restored to health. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital captures the spirit of all that Pakistan can be. Yes, building hospitals has little bearing on running the government; his party may not win come May 11, and may not deliver even if it does. But we owe him for advancing the national conversation, and, with his party becoming a vibrant third force on our political landscape, this truly vindicates the genius of the Pakistani people.
That it took this long for us to believe it is also a commentary on the awfulness of the political class, and how accustomed we are to reveling in that awfulness. It took a while for us to realise, hearts hardened with each disappointment, that it may yet be possible that our heroes and leaders could be one and the same.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2013.