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Democracy 101: Think outside the container

Updated September 04, 2014

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Imran Khan talks to supporters during an anti-government protest near the prime minister's residence in Islamabad on September 3, 2014. — AFP photo
Imran Khan talks to supporters during an anti-government protest near the prime minister's residence in Islamabad on September 3, 2014. — AFP photo

Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have often pointed to the example of protesters in front of 10 Downing Street to claim that demonstrating in front of the Prime Minister’s House is their democratic right.

Let us forget for a moment that no ‘danda bardar’ mob incited for days by their leaders to smash the government will ever get anywhere near 10 Downing Street and stipulate that indeed protesters need a space in the nation’s capital to air out their grievances.

Let’s stay close to home and look at Jantar Manter in central Delhi as one of those places where the very unruly and noisy Indian democracy comes to protest.

In the last three weeks, there were several protests at Janter Manter; featuring everyone from restaurateurs, pub owners and others from the Delhi nightlife and hospitality industries staging a candlelight vigil against the early closure time for their businesses to supporters of the religious leader, Gopal Das, who had brought over 10 cows and bulls demanding a ban on cow slaughter.

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In July 2012, I had a chance to visit Jantar Manter on a day when Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption crusader was several days into his fast to push along the passage of anti-corruption legislation. Right next to hundreds of his supporters was another demonstration led by Communist Party of India. There was plenty of harsh rhetoric against corrupt bureaucracy and an entertaining political theater to be had as Anna Hazare sat in the midst of the stage surrounded by his supporters.

There is much in common between the supporters of Anna Hazare and Imran Khan’s PTI.

  Anna Hazare
Anna Hazare's protest at Jantar Mantar in 2012. — Photo by author

Both groups come from urban, middle-class educated masses, who are disenchanted with electoral democracy because, they complain, corrupt political leaders continue to hoodwink the illiterate masses of South Asia to vote them into office.

Both Hazare and Khan are adored by their followers as incorruptible moral giants. Both of these leaders have touched the nerve of millions of South Asians who are fed up with the kleptocracy nurtured by the ill-gotten gains of fat cat politicians and petty corruption.

But Imran Khan is not only much better-looking than Anna Hazare. He is also a more successful politician. Anna would love to have the kind of success Imran Khan has enjoyed; that of the leader of the third largest vote-getting party in Pakistan within a decade and half of entering into politics.

In the face of the unfolding drama in Islamabad, the question is: why would a successful politician like Imran Khan recklessly undermine both the democratic process and his political future?

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For his die-hard supporters, he is doing this to once-and-for-all get rid of corrupt politicians in Pakistan by reforming the electoral process. For his opponents, he is an arrogant political novice willing to sacrifice the very existence of the state to get to power through the back door.

Then there are many who were once charmed by the Captain’s promise to build institutions, firm up the rule of law and create a welfare state, and are now thoroughly confused by his dismissal of all institutions except an ‘umpire’ who will raise a finger and materialise PTI’s revolution at once.

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When it comes to the right to protest, the Anglophile Imran Khan invokes 10 Downing Street and the Canadian citizen Allama Qadri reassures Pakistanis that all civilised countries recognise their citizens’ right to protest.

The opponents of Imran Khan and Qadri’s ‘dharna’ accuse them of turning Pakistan into a ‘banana republic’. In the current hyper-partisan environment, it seems which version you'll buy depends entirely on what channel you are watching.

But this much is clear: the attack on PTV, the attempt to breach the gates of the Presidency, the storming of the Parliament, physical violence against the police are actions far from the streets of London and prairies of Canada and closer to the chaos of Libya and Iraq.

Take a look: Let sanity prevail, before its too late

Whether the ‘dharna’ is a scripted conspiracy against democratic consolidation in Pakistan or simply an over-reaching by a cricketer-turned-politician who has bet everything on forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the outcome is depressingly familiar to students of Pakistani politics.

So could we create a space like Jantar Manter, right in the middle of nation’s capital where all manner of political protests can happen?

Absolutely.

But before that can happen, we have to get to a place where politics becomes boringly predictable; where the only way to change a government is through a legitimate constitutional process; where the only way to get rid of a prime minister before his or her term is over is through a motion of no-confidence in the Parliament; where there is no 'umpire' whose finger can determine the fate of the country...

Where we never have to worry that some ‘hasas idara’ is pulling the strings of Astroturf social movements to destabilise a government even if it means destabilising the very foundation of the state; where no demagogue, surrounded by same old political faces, promises a brand-new Pakistan and gets all of the media spotlight...

Where real crises like the current military operation in Fata are not wiped out of public consciousness while a manufactured crisis that claims to save the state from politics gets all the oxygen; where 180 million people are not held hostage by a few thousand protesters in the nation’s capital.

Tahirul Qadri may soon leave for Canada, and Imran Khan’s political future is uncertain. More important than either of these is the fate of Pakistan’s nascent democratic institutions.

Imperfect though they may be, it is vital in the long run that they take root and become a firm barrier against regression into our sadly undemocratic past.