Home > Democracy: the endgame – The Express Tribune

Democracy: the endgame – The Express Tribune

NA-122 may have devast­ated Khan and vindic­ated Sharif, but for many this is just Nation­al Geogra­phic entert­ainmen­t

The writer is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey

The writer is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey

Imagine a ship. On board are a people of diverse variety — old, young, burly, small, fit, crippled, sage, sinner, and so on. The ship is bound for an Island. Where that island is or what it looks like, no one knows. But everyone agrees that somewhere beyond the waves and mist, floats a piece of land where everyone is happy. Fragmented and opinionated, the passengers agree on little else. At the helm sits the Captain with his chosen staff in a deck, both incredibly opulent and fully concealed. Periodically, through the blast speakers, he assures his passengers that the island is near. Distracted, the passengers are unaware the ship is actually going in circles. While they persist in their minutiae, the captain and his minions smile.

Welcome aboard the ship of Pakistan — the ship which madly goes around in circles. Favoured by the status quo, our elected leaders stand proudly today on the hunched backs of a ‘captive’ people. To the common man it now matters little who won this or that contested constituency. NA-122 may have devastated Khan and vindicated Sharif, but for many this is just National Geographic entertainment: hyaenas fighting over scraps.

If Pakistan is to survive, let alone thrive, some hard questions now need to be asked. Is this country even ready for democracy? Or is some benevolent dictatorship the need of the hour? Those still haunted by Zia’s nightly apparitions can take heart — and some blood pressure medicine — this is not a call to another martial law. But we are in a partial martial law state as it is — military courts, Rangers operations, widespread military input in national security and foreign policies. And here is the irony: absent an internal course-correction mechanism, all of this seems necessary. Our elected leaders, after all, are masters of short-circuiting the feedback loop of accountability — the loop which makes democracy viable. Like rasping, blood-feasting locusts which skip seasons only to emerge again — hungrier and raspier — these men have cracked the ultimate code to the happy life: keep the constituencies enslaved and ignorant, employ fear and coercion to secure votes and political power, share the spoils, exile when necessary, return when safe — and repeat.

Change seems unlikely. Without a free, informed electorate to elect the right leaders; without incentive structures that would inspire lasting reforms in a broken system; without accountability of those who run the said system — this derailed, runaway train of corrupt governance will just continue to veer off under that fatal liberty acquired in the midst of chaos. So is the current mil-civ balance the only answer then? Are we to hobble on military crutches in some kind of dreary netherland between democracy and dictatorship — neither here nor there?

While an Ataturk-styled purge is of course impractical, the scenario we are currently experiencing is certainly welcome — if only in the short term. With our civil institutions are not yet evolved enough to enforce necessary checks and balances, we need a referee to blow the whistle. Consider NAB, for instance, and the massive failure it has been. Colliding frequently with the judiciary, the NAB’s corruption cases have historically remained an open-and-shut affair because we all know that like falling dominoes, one conviction will lead to several others till only chirping crickets inhabit our public offices since everyone would be in jail. But justice must be served, top to bottom, for things to change. This is where the military establishment has been helpful. The Rangers operation in Sindh has already pulled the covers off some malign actors. However, more urgency is required on this front lest this becomes the permanent status quo, i.e., the military forever calling the shots. That would be undesirable for two main reasons: 1) It’ll stultify the civil apparatus from developing in-house accountability mechanisms and will reinforce the culture of military reliance; and 2) there is no guarantee the next army chief will be as benevolent as Raheel Sharif and will not abuse military muscle as has been the case in the past.

Granted, the current scenario seems terrible undemocratic. But let’s not forget that unlike Nehru’s India, Ataturk’s Turkey, or Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, Pakistan was orphaned at a young age by its founder’s untimely passing. The country never quite acquired the necessary escape velocity a newly-born state needs before it achieves stable momentum. This absence of leadership and a coherent national ethos has left us with a gaping hole which to this day has only been filled by one bad actor after another. Damage control will take time and will of necessity involve out-of-the-box measures, including, yes, military.

Another way to achieve accountability in a democratic system is a robust opposition. Here, Imran Khan could have played a pivotal role, pushing for lasting reforms and extracting concessions in parliament on several key issues. But Khan has proved a failure in this regard. Like a supernova explosion, all he did was suck people’s motivations, expectations, and energies into one giant black hole of nothingness. Khan needs to overcome his ‘election rigging’ monomania and spend more time in parliament than on open-air containers. Because what is at stake is a moribund governance system devoid of the right incentives for reform and credible accountability for repair. The truth is that from cradle to grave, our lives move forward in undulating cycles of reward and punishment. Ancients understood this (just read the scriptures), and so does modern man. Leadership, then, is to inspire and incentivise. And the electorate, in turn, holds the leadership accountable — through electoral mandate. That’s democracy. But sometimes, owing to convulsions in history and accidents of fate, with which we are too familiar, democracy becomes more the endgame than the starting point. This doesn’t mean martial laws or infringements of our Constitution — we’ve already seen enough of that horror movie. But it does mean benevolent assistance from the military till the civil apparatus grows its own legs. Because when there is a giant hole in a country’s narrative, it awaits a script. Let’s hope for Pakistan’s sake that this time it’s the right people who write it.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2015.

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