Introspection everyone?

Published December 8, 2014
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

IS it enough to feel pangs of shame for the manner in which we treat the vulnerable in our society or heap scorn on the rulers to absolve ourselves? The blind being beaten up by the Punjab police while demanding their due is a new low one must admit. The visuals might have made us angry. But are we surprised? Do we not expect our state (and society) to maul those who are weak or struck by misfortune, whether it is minorities, women or the poor?

Our society seems afflicted by a combination of sadism and apathy. Do psychiatrists have a term for this condition? Power is of interest because it can be abused. (Even family and friends deride those who stumble upon power but don’t flaunt it.) And those on the receiving end are infected by apathy and tolerance for the abuse.

Know more: Punjab police: To (not) serve and protect

The argument isn’t that we are a rotten lot and should just live with it, but that we need structured institutional reform and behavioural change. Punjab police malfunctions when investigating crime and terror, when performing watch and ward duties, and when responsible for crowd control. It is an equal opportunity offender for it suffers from a training and human resource crisis like all other institutions — a state of affairs that we refuse to acknowledge or address.

Isn’t the Shahbaz Sharif model of governance in Punjab very similar to what Imran Khan is promising in Naya Pakistan: a strongman at the top and everything falling in place under him intuitively? Sharif would probably not have called the police to have the blind roughed up for kicks. But he has been Punjab’s chief executive for seven years now. The buck must stop with him in this case, just as in the case of the Model Town massacre.

Certain aspects of Imran Khan’s behaviour and policies would give even his well-wishers the jitters.

But isn’t Sharif the best performing chief minister amongst all chief ministers, according to public surveys? He too is omnipresent: wading through floodwaters; running hands-on anti-dengue campaigns; building Metros and bridges; pledging to drag the corrupt through dirt etc. Why is none of this pushing us forward? Could it be because the strongman-magically-fixing-all-ills-afflicting-us might be an ineffective model for sustainable change?

PML-N seems to have learnt nothing from the past few months of public furore. When the chips are down it promises the moon and the stars: deep introspection, self-accountability, new plans, merit-based leadership etc. As soon as it gets a bit comfortable in the saddle, it is business as usual. But can PML-N be accused of inconsistency? It approaches Imran Khan’s deadlines just as it approaches issues of governance: with an ad hoc firefighting mindset.

What PML-N seems to be missing is the larger picture, like PPP before it. PPP has been reduced to a regional party because when in power it refused to see that it was about to be routed from Punjab. Likewise, obsessed with Khan’s deadlines and winning small battles, PML-N today seems unable to see that Khan’s biggest victory is that he has succeeded in dividing the loyalty of Punjab’s institutional elites as well as middle class, previously in PML-N’s corner.

Today, the votes of khakis and khaki families are pledged to Imran Khan. The bureaucracy, dominated by Punjabis, stands divided. The in-the-money expats are committed to PTI. The professional middle class, with its disdain for uncouth politicos and fetish for strongmen, seems to have swerved toward Khan. The jury is out on the traders. But if the energy crisis stays, who knows what they’ll decide. In playing an all-or-nothing game with PTI, PML-N appears more and more a party of the past and present but not of the future, just as today’s PPP.

So is Khan’s rise the best thing for progressive change in Pakistan? At least five aspects of his behaviour and policies give even his well-wishers the jitters.

One, the flawed policy on terror. Khan recently volunteered that had he been prime minister, he wouldn’t have allowed the army into Fata. Imagine that nightmare! This has come in the midst of a successful military operation in North Waziristan that has unearthed a grand infrastructure of terror assembled there (torture chambers, suicide bomber/IED factories, terror economy etc.) and at a time when the army finally seems willing to extinguish non-state actors.

Two, his vigilantism. Khan’s argument is that since he didn’t get justice on his terms, he’ll now have to shut the country down. Can any rule of law proponent justify such course of action? There is a pattern here. In 2013, PTI had asked its vigilantes to forcibly block Nato containers in KP. That circus was eventually dispersed by court orders.

Three, Khan’s inability to distinguish between the state and government. Whether it was Khan inciting everyone to refuse paying taxes and utility bills and sending money through legal banking channels, or his Plan C of shutting Pakistan down, he seems to have no qualms holding a gun to the country’s head to negotiate with PML-N.

Four, Khan’s polarising politics. In a democracy people need to be brought together to forge consensus and get things done, not torn apart. Khan’s message of hope is wrapped in bitterness and hate, which has polarised this country. Today Pakistan is a divided house; even its rational segments at war with one another over political differences. Forget Khan’s ire for opponents and critics, is there room for dissent even within PTI?

Five, his dangerously simplistic solutions. We were told on Nov 30 that only if votes are counted honestly, educated middle classes would rule parliament. Taking big money out of politics is the most complex challenge democracies face. Legal equality doesn’t translate into social/political equality. There are 101 theories on campaign finance reform and why it doesn’t work. Khan must put forth reform plans instead of feeding tales to gullible people.

We could do with introspection all around: a PML-N able to reimagine itself; a PTI able to realise that ends don’t justify means. To take Pakistan forward both parties need to create policy space to accommodate divergent interests without compromising on principles.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @babar_sattar

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2014


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