Eyes Wide Shut

Why then the blinders when it is clear that crooks, criminals and racketeers are robbing this country blind

Fahd Husain July 04, 2015
The writer is Executive Director News, Express News. He tweets @fahdhusain fahd.husain@tribune.com.pk

No, no my friends you’re getting it all wrong. We are not debating the Caesar option. That’s dead. But you people are insistent on keeping your eyes wide shut to the unfolding realities of today.

Wake the hell up, boys.

The stunning contrast between the popularity of the army and the dismal performance of the civilians is sending ripples across muddied political waters, and shivers up many a spine. Once again there is hushed talk of a creeping power grab as the electoral system commits suicide in slow motion.

Are we heading back to the future?

Hang on just a minute. Before we all instinctively put on our ideological bifocals, let’s just take a deep breath, step back, and survey the political landscape. See that heap of trash in the corner? That’s the debris of institution-building. And that stinking mound of rot? That’s individual rights and liberties. Oh and look at that pile of rubble corroding quietly: that’s the rule of law. The junk over there is the police; and the filth in the corner belching noxious odour is accountability.

Let’s face it: We the people are getting a raw deal. If in doubt, head to Sindh.

Spoiler alert! This is not breaking news. When the dictators came in to sweep away the garbage, they ushered in greater destruction. In the process, they time and again proved that if you wear a uniform, you are not fit to rule in this day and age.

But are the electoral types any better? Do they have greater legitimacy? And what constitutes this legitimacy? One round of (disputed) elections every five years? And what do you do when you are faced with a double-whammy: the magnificent failure of both the dictator and the democrat?

Well, for starters you take stock of the system that we lump together as democracy. The apologists are prone to parrot out the predictable ‘the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship’ mantra without realising that proclaiming absolutist conclusions is not always wise. In Pakistan we are in a good position to dissect the ills and strengths of the experiments in governance that we have suffered over the decades. So allow me not to ravage the sensibilities of the apologists anymore by drawing two (non-absolutist) conclusions:

a) Martial law or its variant is not an option any longer;

b) The electoral system in practice today is incapable of reforming itself to a degree that it begins to sprout structural dividends.

What then?

Here’s where things get a bit interesting. The Economist recently published a detailed essay titled “What’s gone wrong with democracy”. Much of what is written should find deep relevance and resonance in Pakistan. The magazine says:

“(T)urfing out an autocrat turns out to be much easier than setting up a viable democratic government. The new regime stumbles, the economy flounders and the country finds itself in a state at least as bad as it was before … Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes…”

They have failed because these democrats are unwilling to internalise the soul of democracy. The Economist says, “(A)lthough democracy may be a ‘universal aspiration’ … it is a culturally rooted practice. Western countries almost all extended the right to vote long after the establishment of sophisticated political systems, with powerful civil services and entrenched constitutional rights, in societies that cherished the notions of individual rights and independent judiciaries.”

In other words, democracy found root where the soil was fertile with individual rights, independent judiciaries and a rule of law that brooked very little exception. The foundation of a representative system was therefore based on the premise that all people are equal in the eyes of the law. By extension, the existence of the State was justified on the grounds that it would ensure order in society and manage a system whereby citizens could maximise their potential for growth, progress and happy, fulfilled lives.

That’s a goal even the apologists would find hard to disagree with. And that’s a goal that is not being realised here at home. Why then the blinders when it is clear that crooks, criminals and racketeers are robbing this country blind through a system that provides a right to vote, but not a right to live; a system that gives us elections without guaranteeing the rule of law in the true sense of the word. The beneficiaries of this crooked system and their apologists defend it blindly knowing well its deep ailments.

Yes, the mutations are obvious: a constituency-based set-up will always be held hostage to biradri-tribe voting patterns; patronage will always define priorities and spending; and loyalty of the kith-and-kin type will always undercut true merit. True, this happens in other societies also, but that doesn’t make all this right.

Why are we then wedded to this particular form of electoral system? The United States has a different way of electing its representatives. Germany has another method and the Scandinavian countries have their own variants. That’s the whole point: you recognise the faults in your system and you reform them. And that’s the problem: the beneficiaries of this present system stand to lose if the system is reformed.

Let me say again to my dear apologists: wake the hell up. We do not want the generals to do this reform because they will wreck it even further. But this does not mean that we accept things the way they are and wait for time to bring in reforms. That’s not going to happen. Long-term planning will remain hostage to electoral cycles; key development in flesh and bone will always lose to investment in bricks and mortar; true accountability will remain subservient to political expediency. And the police will always and always remain a rotten institution feeding on the misery of the populace they are supposed to protect and serve. If this broken system is not repaired and renovated, we face political and social ruin.

This you can see even with your eyes wide shut. But when you open your eyes, answers may come looking for you.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2015.

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