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Waiting for change

July 13, 2014


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

LAST year was supposed to be the year of change: new parliament, new government, new army chief, new chief justice.

Until they went, nothing would change. After they were gone, some things could change.

And yet, here we are, halfway through 2014, and the oldest debate of them all is back: democracy or something else?

It’s barely necessary to catalogue the failures. A new parliament arrived, but the parties who could energise it are led by men who have no interest in parliament.

Here we are, halfway through 2014, and the oldest debate of them all is back: democracy or something else?

Nawaz, Zardari, Imran — you can’t even imagine them working up a yawn at the mention of parliament.

A new government arrived, but it had done no homework and took a while to get going. When it finally did get going, it turned out reforms and reorientation were not part of its plans.

And when the plans it did have began to materialise, they turned out to be not so terribly impressive after all. See, electricity sector, revised growth rate and a bunch of buses.

A new chief justice arrived, but he seemed so haunted by the extravagance of his predecessor that he appeared to forget the judiciary has a real job to do.

Egregious as much of CJ Iftikhar’s reign was, he also picked some brave fights. That’s why while the rest of Pakistan mocked Arsalan Iftikhar’s awful appointment, the Baloch were relatively quiet — they remember who it is that made missing persons a national issue.

What did the last CJ do? Nothing would be a generous answer.

His judiciary couldn’t even decide if military men can be tried by civilian courts — a settled question of law only unsettled by the powers-that-be because of missing persons. Heck, his judiciary couldn’t even decide who’s supposed to run the PCB. Does anyone even remember his name just a week into retirement?

And then, and then there is the new chief. Last chief thrown under the bus, new chief marching towards glory in NWA. Except IDPs everywhere and the militants have already melted away.

What’s the plan after? Where was the plan before? How does planning a battle mean winning a war? Sure, violence will come down for a while. Or maybe that’s the plan: by the time violence bubbles up again in a year or two, it’ll be the next guy’s problem.

So if 2013 didn’t quite work out, what next?

The safe answer is to counsel patience: it’s only just begun; give them time.

Which is fair enough. Except agreeing they should be given more time doesn’t mean that expectations can’t already be recalibrated.

What will rejuvenate parliament this term? Nawaz, Imran, Zardari? Really?

Sure, the longer you don’t do something, the more the pressure will build to do it. Nawaz hated going to parliament, but parliament also hated being ignored — so eventually Nawaz had to turn up there again.

Similarly, after the Senate switches next March, the N-League will be left with nowhere to hide if the legislative wheel still doesn’t turn. Something will have to be done.

Already, Imran baying for blood has made electoral reforms an issue. And there’s the 18th Amendment template ready to be rolled out again. So zero is neither an option nor likely.

But it won’t — can’t — get dramatically better because the class of 2013 is pretty much like the class of 2008. Both leader and follower see the leader’s home as the true fulcrum of political power, not parliament.

Raiwind, Banigala, Bilawal House, and the various other residences in various other cities and countries are where decisions are made. Parliament is where already-taken decisions are formalised.

So scratch parliament as a possible hub of change until 2018, probably at least 2023.

What about the government? Thirteen unlucky months into power there is no good — good — reason to give it a failing grade. Because while much of the political capital from May ’13 has already dissipated, there is still one unquestionable reality.

Nawaz Sharif is a legitimately elected, genuinely popular politician from Punjab who has lived through everything and knows everything he needs to know to ever turn this country around.

Yet, arguably, in that very solution lies the problem. If Nawaz gets it wrong, everything goes wrong.

Which brings us back to why there is no good reason to give his government a failing grade: politics, unhappily, is not always about good reasons.

Already, the most that is being said in defence of Nawaz’s government is that there is no obvious way to bring it down nor are the boys particularly keen on doing so.

Which, if you think about it, is a bit of a damning indictment.

So, on to the judiciary. Awful as the reign of Chaudhry may have been, the new lot seem to have forgotten what the original problem was: the judiciary has never been able to take its rightful space alongside the executive and the legislature as a co-equal institution.

Or, to put it simply, the judiciary has never been taken seriously by the government of the day, always been crushed by it.

While we’re not quite back to pre-Chaudhry days, the court’s docility and the government and boys’ willingness to play games is looking ominous. Let’s just say the PPO wouldn’t have had a long life under Chaudhry.

And the new chief of the boys? He’s got a month of changes coming up in October, the first real chance to shape his team. After that he’s effectively got a year and a half to do what he can.

Goodbye change.

Is anyone still wondering why Imran still resonates so much?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2014