We just celebrated our 67th independence anniversary amid a show of hard power and political maelstrom — a beleaguered prime minister, cacophonous calls for ‘change’ and civil-military wrangling. If anything, the current crisis is reminiscent of Pakistan’s self-perpetuating curse: directionlessness and endemic instability. It does require a major effort by the ruling elite and intelligentsia to keep recurring trends alive and scuttle potential for progress. And we seem adept at it.
A year ago, it was hoped that Pakistan’s democratic transition was proceeding in the ‘right’ direction: one elected government followed by another, a free media, an independent judiciary and a military reviewing its past policy of interventionism. Obviously, such a situation imparted hope for policy revisions and course correction. Most importantly, given the nature of Sharifs’ support base, the promise of economic revival seemed realistic.
Our structural constraints and the dwindling quality of leadership have come to haunt us again. So, within a year, the political future looks uncertain; and in such a situation, the scope for deliberated policy reform becomes even more limited. The federal government has been battling for its survival since June and its capacity for democratic negotiation is almost absent. While the apparent cause for instability is lack of consensus on election results and mythical charges of rigging, the underlying factors are deeper and more worrying.
True that the electoral system is hostage to systemic irregularities, manipulation, excessive use of shady financing and patron-client networks. That the traditional political elite have little incentive to reform is also a given. But there is larger crisis brewing in a fast urbanising Pakistan. And that relates to the absence of state writ, public services and an uncertain future for its younger population. All of this has bred impatience and disgruntlement with democracy. If the fruits of participation in the political process are not visible or realised, this is not too surprising.
Imagine that we still have 25 million (nearly half of schoolgoing) children between the ages of five and 16 out of school. Pakistan ranks 146th among the 187 countries listed on the UN’s Human Development Index and according the multidimensional poverty count, 52 per cent of the population is estimated to be poor. Since 2008, there are no elected local governments and there is least amount of will to institute local democratic structures. For the average citizen, this does not inspire confidence in the state. Mega projects, such as metro buses and highways notwithstanding their importance, do not address the immediate needs of basic education and health.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution — ratified in 2010 — was the first step towards devolution of power. The overgrown provincial governments, managed largely by politically servile, unaccountable bureaucrats — were to be realigned to the imperatives of devolution. That has happened in a haphazard manner; and most critically, the key powers and functions have not been devolved to the local level. Instead, the provinces want to amass more power, giving the respective political parties and coalitions more funds and leverage to dole out patronage to the interest groups, which gather votes for them and finance political mobilisation before and after the elections. These patterns will only change over time and the current drive for electoral reforms by the opposition is welcome except that it may just end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Estimates suggest that half of Pakistan’s youth population — a heterogeneous construct — is illiterate. Their sources of education, therefore, come from mosques, broadcast media and workplace experience. The rest has been influenced by what is taught in schools and madrassas. Until a few years ago, when some of the textbooks were revised, the education system had little emphasis on citizenship, and ideological indoctrination remained the express goal of curricula design. This is why, constitutionalism and the role of Parliament finds little resonance with the younger population.
The conduct of the ‘elected’ is also not too encouraging. The current prime minister was criticised for not attending Parliament. Such is the nature of current political contest that Parliament appears to be largely irrelevant. The task of making it into a robust platform for public participation lies on the political parties. The standing committees started to function late. Similarly, there has been no discussion on the reports that measure progress against principles of policy outlined in the Constitution or that of proceedings of the Council of Common Interest –a constitutional body that mediates federal and provincial interests.
Pakistan’s theocratic establishment, sections of which are armed, continues to disparage democracy. In cities such as Lahore, rickshaws bear messages that cite democracy as a system designed by the Zionists, a conspiracy to undermine the idea of a caliphate. Religious sermons and printed literature widely circulated feed into this narrative. For from the madrassa graduate to the urban youth, democracy, therefore, is a suspect project.
In this climate, it is easy to direct political mobilisation towards overthrowing the ‘system’ and effect ‘change’ that may or may not be in line with the Constitution. Once again, technocrats are being recommended as a panacea for the current political standoff. Such a milieu also provides an opportunity for unelected institutions to ‘intervene’ to consolidate their power amid wrangling political parties. It seems that the consensus on how to govern Pakistan is still a work-in-progress. The only problem here is that 67 years is way too long a period for a country to figure that out.
The chaos that now grips the country successfully deflects the attention from the existential threats that we face. It is truly a poor reflection on the leadership we have that finds it far more important to agitate over or defend (through undemocratic crackdowns) the allegations of rigging than the massacre of Pakistanis, which we have witnessed in the past decade.
Beyond the anatomy of the current mayhem, there is an obvious case of losing direction. Which way are we headed and how are we going to shape the future for millions of young men and women of Pakistan. The inability to learn from our history — or the writing on the wall — drifts us further to the abyss.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2014.
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ET mod. please allow the critique! The usual narrative of shooting in the dark by the author, hoping that one or two of them might be the culprits? "Estimates suggest that half of Pakistan’s youth population — a heterogeneous construct — is illiterate. Their sources of education, therefore, come from mosques, broadcast media and workplace experience. The rest has been influenced by what is taught in schools." It is futile to bring in old veterans of democracy and the military and allow them to perform as they have performed before, accompanied and escorted by the so called intelligentsia per se, hoping to have different results than previously.. Pakistan is ripe for cultural and educational revolution.
Democracy is NOT a suspect. People in general are tired of self serving politicians.
@Viewer: your comments do not help anyone. Your comment seem to me of the rant of a Jealous ugly sister.
Pakistan who has been weaving a web around its neighbours got caught in the same and it is extremely difficult to get out now until the country abandons this self destructive policy.
Dear author, if u can post the picture or other thing saying that democracy is conspiracy of Zionism will be appreciated Good op ed
@Neutrino: A mis-managed and poverty stricken India is not a threat to Pakistan. But a failing and Jihadist Pakistan is a deadly threat to India...that's why you can't zip the Indians on this forum. They will zip it when you get your house in order.
The usual narrative of shooting in the dark, hoping that at least one of them might be the culprit? " Estimates suggest that half of Pakistan’s youth population — a heterogeneous construct — is illiterate. Their sources of education, therefore, come from mosques, broadcast media and workplace experience. The rest has been influenced by what is taught in schools and madrassas. Until a few years ago, when some of the textbooks were revised, the education system had little emphasis on citizenship, and ideological indoctrination remained the express goal of curricula design. This is why, constitutionalism and the role of Parliament finds little resonance with the younger population". It is futile to bring in old veterans of democracy and the military and allow them to perform as they have performed before, accompanied and escorted by the so called intelligentsia per se, hoping to have different results than the previous one. Pakistan is ripe for cultural and educational revolution.
Yes India has problems, but at least they do not kill muslims as we muslims in Pakistan kill each other...it is a shame. Indian society seem more tolerant than us, otherwise, the Muslims in India who are more in numbers than us should have been thrown out years ago....get your own house in order before criticizing India & Indians who are much better off than us in every sector....let us have the courage to face reality, only then we can bring in CHANGE.....
I agree that the conduct of the ‘elected’ is also not too encouraging, in fact disappointing. But that does not justify dismissal. When an elected government does not deliver, people change them and not a mob. But its refusal to listen to IK is the real cause of its troubles. When Nawaz himself started a long march 5 years ago, PPP government immediately moved and reinstated chief justice Chaudri for the sake of national interest. NS should have done the same. Flexibility is more important than stubbornness. Now all Pakistanis are feeling miserable. There is still time to move. That should happen today and not tomorrow.
You sud pay attention to your own country then peeking into ours. We know what to do and how to do. We do not need indian conspiracy advises. Your country has many a times more poverty in comparison with pakistan. I can write a longer list on whats wrong with india.
So better zip it.
When TTP couldn't spoil our independence day after Military Operation, Taliban Khan destroyed our celebration.
Trying to build unity through emphasis on religion has only empowered religious bigots, a sure guarantee that the vision of a modern, secular and progressive State remains a dream.
Pakistan is like a patient who was never able to develop, and as a result now comes across as a retarded person. It's leaders imitate the international leaders , even steal juvenile slogans like "change ", It's leaders are more interested in drama and optics than a vision and fire to implement that vision . I believe a majority of Pakistan needs psychotherapy !
Entire history of Pakistan is nothing but of getting trapped in vicious cycles of all sorts. Worst all such cycles is the Jihadi cycle which has become existential threat. Hate India is another vicious cycle Pakistan can not come out of. List is long..
Very well writeup..
NO Sir,..Nope,..NO...please do not beat the drum for Emperor Nawaz and his co regent Shahbaz.
A very candid reflection over the current sate of affairs. Alas! If only policy makers could read and didn't have enormous egos.