IT is remarkable to think that it has been more than six years since a coterie of pompous generals summoned the chief justice and ‘advised’ him to gracefully vacate his post.
Much has happened in the intervening period, all of which has confirmed that the prevailing structure of power in this country is beset by innumerable contradictions.
With the general election around the corner, it is worth remembering that considerable optimism existed before and after we went to the ballot in 2008. However, there was little chance then — as there is little chance this time around — that mainstream parties would foment a new consensus that signified a genuine rupture with the obsolete, colonial social contract.
Instead, we saw the chief justice emerge as the latest purported ‘messiah’, the military reassert itself as an arbiter of power, the intensification of insurgencies in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, numerous episodes of imperial arm-twisting, spiralling parochial violence, and a host of other symptoms indicative of impending chaos.
So does that mean we have made no progress whatsoever? Is the unfolding state of affairs really as dismal as so many of our commentators — progressives included — make it out to be? I would argue to the contrary. I think that the hegemonic project that has survived in some shape or form throughout Pakistan’s 65 years is teetering on the brink, and that can only be good news for the long-suffering people of this country.
Take the most recent example of how long-standing taboos have been put to rest. Many progressives have expressed great concern at the scrutiny process of electoral hopefuls, and in particular the invocation of Gen Ziaul Haq’s infamous Articles 62 and 63.
Yes lower court judges appear to have adopted a holier-than-thou attitude vis-à-vis politicians, inspired by their superior counterparts. And this confirms that the unelected apparatuses of the state retain a commitment to lording it over the people and their representatives.
But surely it is worth reminding ourselves that the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan’ has never come up for public debate quite like as in the past few days. Thus not only have the returning officers who were posing as defenders of Islam and Pakistan been forced into a manner of retreat, the meaning of the ideology of Pakistan itself has been subject to sustained questioning.
Admittedly, this hardly constitutes a revolution. But a little bit of perspective is necessary if we are to take advantage of the increasing spaces for dissent and resistance that a collapsing hegemony entails.
It should not be understated that the uproar within non-partisan progressive circles was accompanied by at least some reaction on the part of the mainstream politicians who typically steer clear of generating any controversy with regard to holy cows such as state ideology and the institutions that claim to embody it.
And herein lies the rub. Our mainstream political parties, including those who lay claim to a progressive genesis, are still hesitant to take the proverbial bull by its horns.
Throughout history, counter-hegemonic impulses have only actualised themselves in the shape of a new social order through organised political forces. Such forces cannot just be limited to a handful of societal pockets — like, for instance, the contemporary left in Pakistan — but must have sustained roots within working classes and be able to bring together a wide cross section of democratic actors.
We will have to wait and see whether or not a radical alternative on the left with such popular roots does emerge in the years to come. For the time being ordinary people have to make a choice based on the available options.
But what if they do not think that anyone on the ballot is worth voting for? All around the world bourgeois democratic processes suffer from high abstention rates. In other words a relatively small percentage of total registered voters actually turn up on election day to cast their vote. This is the case in Pakistan too.
In recent days a great ruckus has been generated by those who claim to be speaking in the name of democracy with regard to the proposal to add a ‘none of the above’ (Nota) column on the ballot which will permit voters the chance to reject all candidates standing in their constituency. For one reason or the other, the option has been decried as (yet another) conspiracy against democracy.
In fact Nota is an opportunity for voters to make a case for change. In practice it would take many elections for voters to be educated about its meaning and usage, so the recent uproar is a classic case of much ado about nothing. Mainstream parties are making hay about the proposal precisely because they do not want to countenance a more radical politics coming to the fore through the mainstream electoral process.
Indeed, Nota would represent a major watershed for smaller parties without financial muscle and unwilling to compromise on their ideological principles. A significant Nota vote would confirm that the voter wants to make her/his political voice heard but is still searching for a viable option.
It would not, as an unnecessarily large number of people seem to be claiming, provide an opportunity for the men in khaki, high-and-mighty judges or any other such constituency to derail democracy.
As the contradictions in the structure of power — including the ideological edifice of the state — are increasingly laid bare, it is necessary to go beyond armchair democracy and resist not only the establishment but also build an alternative to mainstream parties.
Perhaps many believe that the situation is beyond repair. It is thus that we continue to hear ad nauseam about existential threats posed by extremists and/or the establishment. But what about the threats posed by sitting on the fence? Should we not be spending less time lamenting our fate and more time trying to change it?
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.