Democracy begins at home

Updated November 12, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN politics, the bigger story tends to overshadow the smaller, but equally important, issues being brought to light by breathless developments. It has been no different in the case of the JUI-F dharna. One side story that is never far from the headlines these days is the PML-N’s inner struggles. Is the party revolutionary or not? Is it anti-status quo or not? Are ‘genuine’ leaders of the party getting to shape/lead the party? Or have the ‘bhedis’ (insiders) within betrayed the real cause?

It’s a story which has turned into a boring cliché in the past couple of years, if the press is to be believed. Like a Bollywood film, on the one side are the angry, principled father and daughter who have not only been treated unjustly but are also fighting the good fight. Arrayed against them are not just the villains of Pakistani politics — the khalais (aliens) and Imran Khan but also the Trojan horses within who keep betraying their own leader.

The fight may have been won by now, if the Trojan horses within had taken the same principled stance as their leadership. So, there is much criticism even now of the PML-N wallahs who didn’t make it to the airport when Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz returned to Pakistan for their arrest; and similarly, attacks were launched when the JUI-F dharna was announced and there were reports of reluctance within PML-N ranks.

The party, for once, was not averse to admitting to a difference of opinion and how the final decision would be taken by Nawaz Sharif. And he did.

If there are many in a party who don’t agree with the final decision, is it enough that it is the ‘right’ decision?

What happened later is still a bit unclear (except in gossip and rumours). The party announced its participation in the march but left those watching a little underwhelmed. Was it due to the health scare of Sharif senior or the alleged deal or due to the reluctance of the Trojan horses? But the back and forth before Nawaz Sharif sent a letter to his party highlighted the odd manner in which decision-making is done by our parties. Views are expressed (which too is not routine) and then the final decision is left to the party supremo whoever it is. There is no process to show if the majority agreed with that decision or not or even if the one taking the decision tried to create a consensus. It’s just a top-down affair — my way or the highway.

The question that needs to be asked — and which few do — is: if there are many in the party who don’t agree with the final decision, is it enough that it is the ‘right’ decision? Are decisions to be judged in an abstract manner (of evil vs right) or by how democratically they are made? In this case, many supporters of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz’s bayania (narrative) were rather critical of Shahbaz Sharif and others rumoured to be in favour of staying away from the dharna and confrontation. But are they to be castigated for holding a dissenting opinion because it is judged to be the ‘wrong’ one? Or should one ask if the ‘wrong’ view should be discarded even if it is the majority view? And should the rank and file of any party be expected to go along with a decision taken by an individual?

These questions are important because this is a serious ‘ailment’ within all our parties ie the absence of a democratic decision-making process.

The PTI, reportedly, went through a similar moment when Imran Khan staged a dharna in 2014. It was said that the bulk of the parliamentary party at least was against the idea and also not in favour of submitting their resignations. But Khan ploughed ahead and they had to follow. Aside from the debate over whether or not a dharna is the ‘right’ thing to do, should we also not ask how ‘right’ a decision is if it’s imposed on a party? And in such circumstances, is any party’s second/third tier to be blamed for not being enthusiastic enough?

In the PTI, more so than in the PML-N, dissent is expressed but anonymously. Ask senior party politicians about their choice of spokespeople or the abrupt decision to stop issuing production orders for imprisoned opposition leaders, and the defence is half-hearted. For most people, it is a sign of the fractured party that the PTI is; but perhaps we should also see it as a problem stemming from our parties’ broken decision-making process, which in turn is linked to their domination by individuals or families.

The PPP is no different. In the dharna itself, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari first announced the party would stay away from it. Later, he said the party CEC would consider the decision; but wasn’t the first decision taken by the party CEC and if it hadn’t, how had BBZ reached or announced that decision?

Perhaps more important still is the Senate election in which Sadiq Sanjrani was elected. The ‘selected chairman’ (as BBZ described him) was first elected into the position by the PPP; later, the PPP tried its best to unseat him. Once again, it came to be widely assumed that the first decision was due to some wheeling and dealing behind the scenes by the party’s first family and the second decision was taken because the expected fruits hadn’t come their way. The rest of the party consisted of the proverbial children lured by the Pied Piper.

There is also the famous 2013 meeting of the party. After the defeat of the PPP in the general election that year, some members stuck their necks out and suggested BBZ take over the party (and Asif Zardari retire). Perhaps others too would have seconded their opinion if free speech was a right within parties.

Party decisions can be judged right or wrong and debated for years — in fact, it is important to do so. But no less important is to question how decisions are made, and whether or not they are made democratically, because where the absence of an inclusive decision-making process harms a country, it also harms or weakens political parties. Democracy has to begin at home.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2019