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Let’s have a king

August 28, 2014


The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

SINCE it is a bit too late to ask the British to relieve the people of Pakistan of the unmanageable burden of democratic governance, the best option available to us is to find a king, or an equivalent.

This is the result of the failure of aimless efforts to resolve the tussle between the Nawaz Sharif government and the challengers, as represented by Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan, and Altaf Bhai’s desperate plea to God to save Pakistan.

This is also the result of parliament’s having been sentenced to death for rigging in the 2013 election on the solitary testimony of a retired Election Commission official Mohammad Afzal Khan.

Since Mohammad Afzal Khan said what his handlers wanted him to say and what the pretenders to the throne wanted to hear, and his testimony provided much needed grist to the media mills, the Islamabad trial concluded without subjecting him to even an elementary cross-examination.

History will surely be interested in the anatomy of the Islamabad trial of democracy.

Mohammad Afzal was not asked why he remained silent till the date for the umpire to raise his finger had passed. Earlier on, he had only suspected rigging, now he was convinced of it. Nobody asked him what evidence had fallen into his hands, and how and when that transformed his doubts into certitude. And he forgot to identify any single party as the culprit.

History will surely be interested in the anatomy of the Islamabad trial of democracy.

The targets of Afzal Khan’s venom are three former judges. Former judge Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim (who chose to resign from the Supreme Court rather than submit to Ziaul Haq’s diktat, and served with distinction as law minister and provincial governor) is accused of ignoring irregularities, that according to Afzal Khan were most common in Karachi, and of being afraid of asserting himself. Afraid of whom?

By playing up unsubstantiated allegations against the former chief election commissioner, who had accepted the assignment only to gratify his passion for holding a free and fair election, the media subjected an iconic figure to character assassination. But who cares for this when freedom is knocking at the door — pardon, at the container?

The two other former judges in the line of Afzal Khan’s broadside are the two most recently retired chief justices of the apex court. In olden times hurling unsubstantiated charges against the judges might have been considered a grave offence. It might have been said that the deficiencies of the judiciary could be removed by corrective measures over a certain period. But such counsel has no value when revolution is only an arm’s length away.

The key sentence in Mohammad Afzal’s deposition was: everybody interfered with the electoral process in proportion to one’s capacity (hasb-i-taufeeq). What this meant was that all contestants used mob power wherever they had it to secure results in their favour — a phenomenon known to election-watchers since the beginning of the election system in the subcontinent. Such manipulation rarely leads to the defeat of a popular candidate. It is also distinguished from rigging which is a term used for state-sponsored interference in the election process.

There are quite a few steps on the path of rigging that only the state can take. These include interference with the people’s right to franchise (exclusion of people from the electoral lists, wrong entries, last-minute inclusions, et al); delimitation of constituencies in a manner favourable to a particular party (called gerrymandering); and leaving the polling process at the mercy of local, and vulnerable, functionaries. These problems have been noted during each election. But there is no time for arguments.

The three allegations against state functionaries are: that ballot papers were privately printed for the benefit of a particular party, that the returning officers were appointed contrary to the procedure and they manipulated the outcome; and that the popular verdict was interfered with by declaring a large number of votes invalid.

These charges used to be considered mere allegations until proved through a proper inquiry and judicial adjudication. When the government shows little keenness to have these accusations examined by a non-partisan tribunal and the challengers lack the patience to wait for the crucial scrutiny these questions bother no one except for some good-for-nothing devotees of democracy.

Similarly, the irregularities non-state actors can commit were known and could be measured. These included: impersonation, preventing a citizen from voting through threat of divine or cultural sanction, use of force or bribery, stuffing of ballot boxes, decamping with the ballot boxes, and booth-capturing. Whether such irregularities did occur last year, and where and to what extent, were matters of fact that needed to be established through a credible inquiry. But again there was no time for these unnecessary formalities.

Further, Pakistanis were needlessly told to learn from history and the experience of other peoples. They were asked to recall the 1977 movement against rigging which was none-too-cleverly turned into a drive for Nizam-i-Mustafa and ended up as Nizam-i-Zia.

They were also asked to study the reasons that persuaded the US Supreme Court to end the hearing of complaints of rigging in Florida during the Bush presidential election (the first one) and why the complainant (Al Gore) did not wish to bring the presidency under the cloud of illegitimacy. Now, are we going to take lessons from the Americans who could not find a place for the Statue of Liberty on their mainland?

Happily all props of a democratic order have been hacked away. The political parties have been replaced with supreme leaders’ darbars in which party office-holders are mere errand boys, the ideas of settlement through mutual give and take have been buried, and parliament has been ridiculed by men consumed by ambition. Let’s quickly find a king before the mischief-mongers among democrats start misleading the poor by promising them land reforms and workers’ rights.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2014