PTI supporters at the protest sit-in in Islamabad – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad
Perhaps, it is true that Pakistani population is fed up with country’s political system or democracy, the word we use to describe our political structures. The disenchantment is rampant. Everyone is talking about corruption prevalent in the system and cronyism that political class promotes after coming to power. The word “democracy” is losing its allure and gloss. Drawing room chats start with the theme of failure of democracy to solve basic problems and end at the conclusion that old guard such as Zardaris and Sharifs have again joined hands not to protect the system but to start looting and plundering country’s wealth anew.
Social media is full of discussions that label democracy as a system of the corrupt and for the corrupt. Watching the video of a new song (that one friend has posted on his Facebook page) that blames every ill in the society on democracy left bitter taste. The video shows singers singing a song that is punctuated by a refrain, “And democracy goes on”, after the lyrics describe with relish the rampant corruption in government’s ranks, killings in Karachi and terrorism and militancy in North Western part of the country, as if directly accusing political system – that was revived only six years back after a military rule of nine years – for all these problems.
I have tried many times to convince the people holding such views that had there been a continuous political process after the enactment of 1973 constitution, our society would not have been afflicted with these problems. My main line of argument in these discussions have been to advocate that Zia’s martial law was directly responsible for corrupting the political class, and it was during his reign that the war in Afghanistan introduced Kalashnikov culture in Pakistani society.
But at the end of every such discussion, I came back home with the realisation that perhaps I am not a very good orator, or perhaps my sense of recent Pakistani history is flawed as every time I have failed miserably to impress my companions, who are otherwise fairly educated people. Or perhaps a more plausible explanation for this indifference could be that these people are focusing on the present condition of the country (which is undoubtedly miserable) while remaining totally detached from history and its impact on the present situation.
Supporters advocating this view are quite vocal on mainstream media while social media sees them opining in shape of blogs, facebook statuses and tweets, bulldozing the views of those defending democracy. Their slogans and mottos are blunt: democracy is corrupt, political system is flawed (because it brings Maryam and Bilawal into power) and political class is both inept and corrupt. This “anti-politics” position now has two fine gentlemen – Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri – as their chief spokesmen. In the initial two and a half weeks of their sit-in, both Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan adopted a highly anti-politics position in their rhetoric.
Both of them were not simply attacking the Sharif government, but were critical of the whole political system and the way politics was being carried out in the country. Tahir-ul-Qadri was more aggressive in this. He wanted all the representative institutions to be dissolved immediately and not even once took the pain to explain what would replace these institutions in case his demands are met. Imran Khan was more circumspect, but, nonetheless, he was no less anti-politics in his rhetoric.
PTI leader Imran Khan waving to his supporters at his Azadi march in Islamabad last month – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad
For them, politics is simply unimportant. Goals are important. They want corruption free Pakistan. They want to put an end to hereditary politics. They want that no one should be allowed to be disrespectful towards the army and its leadership, all commendable objectives, no doubt. But the problem is how to achieve these goals? Sometimes, while listening to anti-politics views in mainstream media, one gets the feeling that these are completely apolitical people and groups, who want to achieve high goals, but are not interested in the processes, legal, constitutional and political processes.
To demand the end of hereditary politics is fairly modern and liberal ideal. One way of achieving this objective is to engineer an army intervention (I am making purely hypothetical argument) and get an ordinance promulgated that Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are barred from holding public office for the rest of their lives. But will this solve the problem? No, it will not.
For instance, let’s assume that everyone in Islamabad’s power corridor agree that the popularity of Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Pakistani society are evils. Even then there is no way these “evils” could be removed with the power of an executive order. Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf issued thousands of executive orders to remove the “evils” of
PPP’s popularity and Nawaz Sharif popularity in their respective eras, but failed miserably.
After Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, the military and its intelligence agencies tried their best to prevent Benazir Bhutto from coming to power, but she emerged triumphant in 1988 elections, in the face of opposition from Pakistan’s state machinery. Similarly, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) emerged as the second largest party in the parliament in 2008, despite the fact that Musharraf’s intelligence forcibly hijacked his party in the wake of October 1999 coup.
This is the lesson of politics. PPP has deep roots in Pakistani society (if somebody has any doubt, he should take a cab and travel through Punjab and Sindh). If somebody or some groups dislike this reality of Pakistani politics, they should jump into the arena, and try to convince the people that PPP is “corrupt”, that it is a party of a family, that you are facing the danger of being enslaved by the third generation of Bhuttos. Nawaz Sharif has a popular vote bank in urban areas of Central Punjab. If somebody dislikes this reality, they should go out and te1ll the people that if you vote for Nawaz Sharif you are facing the danger of being enslaved by the second generation of Sharif.
I am not sure, but it can be a very powerful message. But all this has to be done while remaining within the ambit of existing rules of the game. The problem with this “anti-politics” group is that after coming face to face with this juggernaut of Pakistani politics, they still try to look for short cuts. The short cut is simple: Assemble a few thousand people in D-chowk of Islamabad and wait for Army intervention (then army comes into power, waste nine to eleven years of nation’s precious time and then either Maryam Nawaz or Bilawal Bhutto would come to power, riding a sympathy wave).
The reality of army’s dominant role in country’s power structure provides fuel to the politics of anti-politics groups. The hope of army intervention is always at the back of their minds, when these people with anti-political views come on the streets. Army’s more than conspicuous capacity to dislodge any representative government give a push to the anti-politics groups in Pakistani society to keep degrading the political system in public discourse.
The argument that army could put the things right gets oxygen from the flawed understanding of history of military rules in Pakistan. I still remember the first speech of General Musharraf on the night of October 1999 coup in which he vowed that he would promote inter-provincial harmony, and when he resigned from his office in 2008, there was full scale insurgency raging on in Balochistan and the Baloch rebels were killing Punjabi settlers even in Quetta.
“Anti-politics” views are surely the invention of Pakistan’s third military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, who, throughout his tenure went out of the way to curb usual political activities in the country. Newspaper censorship was imposed, political parties were banned and right to assemble for political activities was prohibited. The only general elections that were held in his tenure were on non-party basis. He held a local body election to raise a political class, imbued with anti-politics thinking and immersed in patriotic feelings that see army as the center of gravity in Pakistani society that would rival the traditional political forces in the country.
When he came face to face with the political reality that PPP was still the most popular party in Pakistani society, he invented the theory that the society has a ‘silent majority’ which is fed up with the traditional politicking and this ‘silent majority’ is solidly behind his military rule. This theory of ‘silent majority’ was continuously put to use in the intervening period between two martial laws. The file titled ‘Silent majority’ was still lying in GHQ gathering dust, when Pakistan’s fourth military ruler, General Musharraf picked it up and started harping along the similar themes.
General Musharraf and his cronies were as eloquent as their predecessors in convincing the world that there is a mysterious ‘silent majority’, which is not only “anti-politics” but is fed up with the antics of traditional politicians. This silent majority, however, did nothing when Pakistani voters sent PPP back into power corridors in 2008, which, in turn, forced Musharraf to resign from the office of President.
Since the ouster of Musharraf, there is, however, a qualitative change in the way politics of “anti-politics” is being conducted in Pakistani society. In the past the political forces which acted as military’s proxies were, however, not wholly anti-politics in their attitudes. The religious right, which Zia co-opted into his regime, may be an exception to this rule. Jamaat-e-Islami’s religious ideology and the way it wholly supported Zia regime in the process of Islamisation of Law could be described as anti-politics. However, rest of the political forces, which allied themselves with military governments in the past 30 years, remained committed to their political constituencies, while serving the interests of military governments.
Tahir-ul-Qadri at his Inquilab march in Islamabad last month – Photo by Tanveer Shehzad
The advent of religious maverick like Tahir-ul-Qadri and his relatively more secular partner Imran Khan has introduced the qualitative change in the system. Qadri is staunchly anti-politics. He attacks the very basis of this system which provides legitimacy to the state and the governments. Ironically, Imran Khan is not lagging far behind as his frustrations reaches saturation point. In the initial period of his political career, Imran Khan did support military government, but most of the serious political analysts agreed that he showed strong signs of transforming into a traditional political party with stakes in the system over the years.
What compelled Imran to change his natural trajectory of political development is not very difficult to discern. He was frustrated with the system that provided him no remedy against the alleged ‘election fraud’, which, he honestly believes, led to his defeat in the last parliamentary elections. So the people witnessed Imran Khan attacking the very legitimacy of political institutions. The main reason the ten political parties represented in the parliament so easily reached a consensus to support Nawaz Sharif and oppose Imran Khan’s sit-in was that the tone and tenor of his (Imran Khan) speeches was so familiar to what they have been hearing about politicians from Musharraf’s military regime in its nine years tenure.
Is there an alternative to politics? The question will appear frivolous to any one belonging to a society which have vibrant political institutions. To Pakistanis this question appears as natural, primarily because they have been led to believe that the military governments are an alternative to “filth” of politics in the society. They believe that when military ousts a civilian government it puts an end to politics. Generally, people believe inter-party rivalries, electioneering, holding of rallies and protest marches are all that they need to know about politics. To them, politics is optional and any society could opt out of it, if it wants to.
This is not surprising as famous historian of political ideas, Francis Fukuyama in his recent book the Origins of Political Order narrate the brief history of how people around world fantasise about a situation where they will be no state and no politics. Pakistani version of this fantasy is military government. Like so many other political thinker, Fukuyama so aptly describes in his book that absence of politics is always chaos and anarchy, and not utopia of any kind. So the question before us is not whether to have politics in our society or not? Because politics is not optional, instead the question is how to organise politics in our society?
In our context, two available options for organising politics in our society are, a) Through constitutional means: in which power is vested in a person or a group of persons who contest elections and legitimately assume power, b) Through barrel of the gun: in which two or three generals take control of the army and the country in the dark of the night. It’s not that army generals don’t indulge in politics after staging coups. Politics is primarily about distribution of resources in the society and this is what every government (whether military or civilian) has to decide after coming to power.
In the past, economic policies of Ayub Khan’s military government led to regional imbalance in economic development between East and West Pakistan, which eventually resulted in the secession of the former. Military takes decisions in a non-transparent manner behind closed doors and for social stability they co-opt part of traditional and corrupt political elite.
Ironically, army, this time, did not have to put together an “Anti-politics” coalition, as they have always done in the past. This time they had ready-made options available to them. The latest assertion of “anti-politics” attitudes in country’s politics has been a forceful one. There is every chance that the politics of “anti-politics” will become a permanent feature of Pakistani political scene. After all, popular figure like Imran Khan and a powerful orator like Tahir-ul-Qadri are now two of its most vocal spokesmen.
I think the government should not misjudge their strength by the small number of people they have been able to attract to their sit-ins, in front of the parliament house. Their strength should be judged by the nature of the discourse that it taking place in the streets and private drawing rooms. Economic hardships, which are increasing by every passing day, will increase the disenchantment with the political system, thus swelling the ranks of anti-politics groups. If democracy does nothing to solve people’s economic problems, there is not even slim chance that they will turn pro-politics.