Democracy on a treadmill

What we are witnessing is a fight to set this system right.


Fahd Husain August 30, 2014

Shorn of any kind of violence, the political crises unfolding on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue could be the best thing that could have happened to Pakistan.

So let’s get some things brutally straight: It’s a fight for the system that does deliver, but doesn’t too. This is a system that gives us a vote, a parliament, and other institutions that constitute a democratic dispensation. It is a system that has representative wheels and a representative engine and it sputters forward like a rickety old car. It belches smoke and coughs out toxic fumes, but keeps chugging ahead on the rickety road to somewhere.

What we are witnessing then is a fight to set this system right. That at least, seems to be the intention. And the reality?

Well, here’s where things get really interesting. The situation is all knotted up in steel wires and steely positions. It’s an alphabetical nightmare: the PML-N, the PTI, the PAT and GHQ locked into a steely embrace with the PPP, the JI and others hovering around to help untie the knot. The steely resolve to find a negotiated way out of this maze is however still elusive. The wire is stretched to breaking point, ready to snap any moment and lash around like a snarling steel snake.

But wait. Is it really all doom and gloom? Look closer, and observe the slowly emerging contours of linear progress. Yes a gradual process of creative destruction is happening within the smog of dread. See the slow emergence of something new and exciting within the clouds of fear and uncertainty. Witness the birth of evolution; witness the transformation of political horror into the shaping of a revitalised nation ready and willing to demand more from the system than what it offers now.

And what it offers is clearly falling short of what it is supposed to offer. Imran Khan is right when he talks about the stench wafting from the fragrance of Pakistani democracy. He is right when he wails against the pungent odour of nepotism and dynastic governance; he is right when he bellows against representative institutions representing not people but interests and agendas. And Imran Khan is spot on when he thunders against our democracy running not on its true spirit but on a treadmill — huffing and puffing but not really going anywhere.

But here’s the catch. Democracy on a treadmill is better than a static, stationary democracy getting fat on the frustrations of those it is supposed to serve. In a perfectly beautiful system, something is stinking to high heaven. Make no mistake then — something’s gotta give. And this something will not be birthed within the womb of the Parliament that we have now. A Parliament that cannot validate its own existence; a Parliament that cannot legislate away people’s pressing problems; that seems in no hurry to educate its children and feed its poor; that appears oblivious to the hypocrisy that plagues the system of governance — such a Parliament cannot be expected to spearhead Pakistan’s evolution into a dynamic and egalitarian nation. Such a Parliament — duly elected as it may — represents the structural inadequacies of our society. It is a parliament that is itself a beneficiary of the system that breeds contempt within the population that it represents.

Irony? Absolutely.

What then to do? Scrap it, burn, wreck it and raze it to the ground? This is indeed the shortest short cut. But short cut after all is the longest distance between two points. Evolution abhors short cuts and embraces the snail-paced path to progress. We have had enough shocks to the system; enough iconoclastic experiments aimed at smash-and-build projects. No, this will not work. Deft handling and deliberate tinkering to improve the system is perhaps the wise chart to course. For amidst fiery passions and emotional rhetoric, let us not forget that progress has been achieved. A parliament is better than no Parliament. An elected leader is better than a despot. Diffusion of power is better than concentrated authority. Freedom to throw out representatives through the ballot box is better than being stuck with those who derive their authority from other sources. We have indeed moved forward in these respects. A banana republic we are not.

Do remember that in today’s Pakistan dynasties lord over us, but people are not lashed in public for their beliefs. Do remember that elites have indeed captured the electoral system, but even then decisions are made for fear of the ballot, not the bullet. And do indeed remember that the weak are exploited and abused by the system, but they can shout and be heard. This is very little progress, but progress it is. No need to smash it. Again.

Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have reminded our elected rulers that the system has got to evolve; that it must reform fast or be smashed again. The two gentlemen have done what the elected rulers would never have — they have shocked the system into realising its own contradictions. They are right in what they say. But they are perhaps not so right in how they want this reform to happen. Forcing a prime minister to resign before his guilt has been established is akin to smash-and-build. Shocking him into action is not. He stands shocked. He stands weakened. He stands cut to size. Force him to reform. Force him to evolve. Force him to face his demons.

But do not force him out by force. That would be regression, not evolution. And if evolution is what we achieve on Constitution Avenue, we could be on the cusp of something truly exciting.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2014.

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COMMENTS (5)

Talha Imtiaz | 6 years ago | Reply 100 % agree with fahad.the cause of Ik is great but the way does not.
Ali S | 6 years ago | Reply

At the core of this problem, politically speaking, is the fact that Punjab is the undeniable power centre. IK could have lead by example by doing his best in KPK, but he knows that until he's shuffled things up in Punjab his shot at PM is moot.

Make more provinces (for better administration), give large urban centres their own administrative authority and local govt and give more regional autonomy - this whole centralization of power and the dynastic politics that inevitably follow it will melt away themselves. Not only that, it would also nullify these separatist movements' demands to some extent. That would the right path to long-standing democratic progress, but sadly amid all this drama I don't say anyone saying a thing about it.

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