By Ayaz Amir
Democracy is the sum of its parts. American democracy in action is what the Republican and Democratic parties make it out to be. UK democracy is about the functioning of the three major parties represented in the House of Commons. It is simply not possible for political parties to be sick and corrupt and for the tree of democracy to be in robust health.
This is Pakistan’s problem. Barring the civil and military retired classes which are eternally-enamoured of military-controlled democracy, the rest of the country’s mortal population craves nothing more than ordinary, everyday democracy. The problem is, and it is a huge one, that Pakistan’s political parties, all of them, even the most self-righteous, refuse to change. Most things evolve and grow. Even viruses mutate. But Pakistan’s political parties, champions of the hollow word, are incapable of changing.
The Jamaat-e-Islami and the MQM are the only political parties in the country where the hereditary principle—the mantle of leadership passing from one family member to another, usually from doting father to dutiful son—does not reign supreme and unchallenged. The rest are family fiefdoms. While there is an element of comedy in this, it is not very funny for a nation which even after 63 years of its birth is still caught in the throes of trying to fathom the meaning of its existence.
About the two paragons of democracy named above, the Jamaat and the MQM, a few caveats are in order. The Jamaat, for all its religious credentials, or perhaps because of them, is neo-fascist in outlook. Almost single-handedly, the Jamaat and its student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba, have distorted if not destroyed, with a viciousness that has to be marvelled at, the academic atmosphere of our higher educational institutions. When the definitive history of the decline of Pakistani education is written, the Jamaat will have the leading role in it.
The Islami Jamiat is undisputed king of the Punjab University and we can see the effects of that in what has happened to that notional seat of learning. If the Jamaat were ever to come to power in Pakistan, the entire country would begin looking like the Punjab University: a stronghold of reaction.
The MQM is Pakistan’s answer to German National Socialism, constructed on the same lines and borrowing entire chapters of methodology from the storm troopers who helped spread the gospel of national socialism in Weimar Germany. Furthermore, if the hereditary principle does not hold sway in the MQM, the Fuehrer principle—everything subordinated to the will of the single, supreme leader—is very much in evidence.
What a choice, indeed an embarrassment of riches: only two political parties where son does not succeed father, and both shining examples of the admixture of violence and politics.
Incidentally, Weimar democracy was a sick democracy and from its womb arose, as we know, the curse of Nazism. Our democracy too is sick. The challenges Pakistan faces—their scale enough to overwhelm any country—are greater, far greater, than the capacities of our political parties. This makes ours too a sick democracy. Let us beware of the demons lurking in its bosom.
Which is not to say that if political parties do not hold the keys to survival and resurrection, as they surely do not, General Headquarters (GHQ)—for much of our history our holy of holies—has in its possession anything like the holy grail. GHQ’s interventions have been an unmitigated disaster, each worse than the one before it.
This only makes Pakistan’s plight all the more serious. If the political process is sick, as it dismally is, and military intervention a prospect not to be contemplated with equanimity, where does the fortress of Islam—which is how the more dedicated amongst us prefer to define the Republic—look for deliverance and salvation?
How are we to improve the mechanics of governance? How are we to arrest the incipient signs of disorder and anarchy which are staring us in the face? We know our state machinery is not functioning as it should. Corruption has become a way of life, as have sloth and inefficiency. But these are not unalterable conditions. Corruption can be controlled, if not entirely eliminated. National efficiency can improve. But only if the political process starts working better and throws up a better sort of leadership than the characters presently strutting about the political stage, provoking the nation to think of extremist solutions.
It is not hard to sense the consensus slowly building up in the chattering and newspaper-reading classes around the idea of some form of electrical therapy—sharp electric shocks to the chest, and a few perhaps to the buttocks—to improve the nation’s blood circulation. And it’s not only armchair warriors who are thinking along such lines. There is growing popular disgust with the political process, and its lack of true alternatives.
What we have by way of alternatives is more of the same: on one side naked greed, greed without bounds, on the other side greed covered by a thick layer of piety and hypocrisy. The only question is about who should administer the therapy.
One illusion, however, we should nail to the mast, and that as quickly as possible. The growing signs of disorder and anarchy we are seeing are suggestive of no revolutionary ferment in the cesspool which the national scene has become. If only we were that lucky.
The masses are not on the point of rising. Fat chance of that happening. There is no revolutionary party to lead them and no Che Guevaras waiting in the hills. The anger and the growing desire for smashing things up are happening in a disorganised fashion.
Rousseau, Voltaire and the Age of Enlightenment were essential to the French Revolution. The most committed souls in Pakistan today—committed to their ideology, that is, whether we agree with it or not—are the cadres of the Tehrik Taliban-e-Pakistan and others of their ilk. Difficult to fit these into any template of enlightenment.
So let us not be carried away by mirages of our own making. The desert sands are empty, with nothing in them. If anything grows in South Punjab apart from the finest cotton and mangos on earth, it is fatalism and a timeless sense of resignation. South Punjab is no cauldron of revolution.
So, to return to our earlier question, whence the shocks to the spine of the body-politic? GHQ is littered with the wreckage of failed experiments, testimonials to the limited vision of Pakistan’s military class. Nursing hopes from that quarter is another illusion whose time is up.
There remain the courts from which, after the restoration of Chief Justice Chaudry and their other lordships, great things were expected, especially by the new phenomenon to have arisen in Pakistan: the large audience whose prime entertainment is remaining glued to TV talk-shows. This is an audience which won’t do anything on its own but which waits for manna and wild honey to fall from the skies.
The hopes attached to the courts were false because the courts on their own can achieve very little, as we are seeing for ourselves these days. The cases touching on important matters are taking forever to decide. And even when judgments are delivered nothing really happens, leading their lordships to get hot under the collar and pontificate a bit more, which does nothing to improve matters.
But this is to go around in circles and whistle in the dark. The political arrangement we have—let us not dignify it by calling it a system—is incapable of delivering anything. This has been amply proven by events. This arrangement is a holdover from the past. Let us not forget that by 1999 the national leadership on offer, on both sides of the political equation, had largely been discredited. Paradoxically, Musharraf’s dictatorship gave that exhausted leadership a new lease of life. We are living with the consequences, the past casting a dark shadow over what should have been a newer future.
1967 was a watershed moment. The old politics was dead and new forces arose on the horizon, both here and in what was then East Pakistan. We face a similar situation today, a similar watershed emerging. But where are the new forces on the horizon?