Amorality of our politics

May 15, 2018


MIAN Nawaz Sharif’s recent remarks have created another storm in the country. While the government has now been forced to react, the PML-N remained relatively quiet until the day after they were reported. But this silence is not surprising; parties in Pakistan tend to remain inactive when hit by a crisis.

There have been so many such incidents in the recent past. It comes out that Khawaja Asif has an iqama but he waits for the court to declare him unfit for parliament. Ishaq Dar is declared an absconder but argues that he can be a senator because there is no bar on an absconder standing for and winning a Senate seat (and of course on the senator-elect not turning up to take the oath for months after the election is over because he doesn’t plan on returning to the country). In his case too, the courts act but his party finds no fault with him.

This bad behaviour is not limited to the PML-N. Any party in power seems to opt for the same route — for the path of most resistance (to a crisis). When Asim Hussain is accused of corruption, the PPP doesn’t react. Instead Bilawal Bhutto Zardari visits him in hospital, pouring cold water over the hopes of many who looked to him to rescue the party.

It’s hard for the urban middle class to understand why our politicians and parties don’t give a hoot for ethical behaviour.

Sometimes politicians realise that it’s simpler to quit rather than be thrown out.

With one eye on the newspapers and politics abroad, where politicians voluntarily bow out at the first whiff of a scandal or poor judgement (David Cameron resigned after losing the Brexit vote), our middle-class voters cannot understand the stubbornness of local politicians who refuse to ever take the moral high ground. In fact, they seem to relish it — remember the former chief minister of Balochistan who immortalised himself by saying, “Degree to degree hoti hai…”

Such behaviour simply adds to the commonly held perception that our politicians are inherently amoral and unconcerned about public opinion.

But truth be told, the ethics that politicians elsewhere adhere to are less due to a strong sense of right and wrong and more due to power politics.

In strong political parties, no leader is invincible — the strong, democratic competition within means each individual in a position of power (and envy) will always have contenders. A mistake can prove fatal, for those waiting in the wings will not miss an opportunity to bring a rival down. And sometimes, politicians realise that it’s simpler to quit rather than be thrown out. (In the modern democratic system, it’s deemed honourable to depart when your exit is inevitable.)

For example, when British prime minister David Cameron resigned after the mess that was the Brexit vote, media reports were already circulating about whether or not party members would challenge his party leadership. When Margaret Thatcher seemingly lost her popularity, she was replaced by John Major by a vote.

Across the Atlantic, Richard Nixon resigned when the legislature had begun the proceedings to impeach him, while Bill Clinton didn’t (later he won the vote in the Senate). To an extent, power politics, and not morality, shaped the decisions of the two presidents.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, the system is dominated by weak parties and the absence of democratic structures. Scandals or wrongdoings provide no space for other aspirants to strike at a foe and stake their own claim at power. Hence, Dar stays on — as finance minister in the cabinet — even after he scampers abroad and few expect him to return. And who is going to tell Nawaz Sharif that his involvement in the Panama scandal may sully the image of the party or that his onslaught against the military and the judiciary is creating problems for the party?

Leaders exit parties or positions only when they lose favour with the uncrowned king of the party and not because they have become a liability — Babar Awan was removed once he crossed Zardari and not because most of the PPP disliked him. And the uncrowned kings are rarely removed except through coups or court rulings.

But it’s not simply the weak political structure of the parties which is to blame for what happens in Pakistan. Civil-military tensions also are at fault.

With the constant efforts of the establishment to keep striking at the stability of civilian governments, the priority of the political parties’ heads is to assert complete control over the organisation (to ward off threats).

Any scandals that crop up are viewed as conspiracies to be thwarted and not crises the party must swiftly defuse. Corruption cases are not signs of a politician’s wrongdoing but simply incidents orchestrated by the establishment to weaken the civilian governments. And the knee-jerk reaction is to hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over.

This explains the lack of initiative by the PML-N over Panama or the iqamas held by some of its ministers or even the PPP’s support for its party holders who are accused of corruption.

And in some cases, the reaction is not simply to do nothing but to turn to defiance as a way of hitting back at the invincible establishment. What else can explain the PML-N’s decision to grant a Senate ticket to Ishaq Dar at a time when he was away from the country? Or the party’s decision to keep him on as finance minister on leave when NAB was investigating him for alleged corruption?

If in the process, the parties lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the urban middle class (and the media), so be it. As a result, a vocal (but small) part of the populace aligns itself with the military, against the political parties. This, in turn, adds to the weakness of the latter.

It’s hard to envision how this vicious circle will end. Will the military take the first step by reducing its interference in political affairs or will the parties strengthen their organisational structures (even if it might lead to more political shaheeds in the short term)? Or are we condemned to repeat history?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2018