THERE is a strange kind of unease that accompanies incompetence.
Thursday night this unease stalked the streets of Karachi, and more specifically the streets of NA-249. The much-hyped election was taking place in the backdrop of a heated national debate on election management and electoral reforms. Yet, the stench of familiarity had begun to billow out from the constituency as the hot and lazy day dragged itself into the balmy Karachi evening. The slow vote count, the confusion over Form 45, the un-contactable presiding officers, the late night convergence of party workers and leaders at the returning officer’s joint, the inevitable accusations of foul play, the partisan friction through statements and speeches, and the final result materialising in the early hours of the morning — it was all so predictable, so un-delectable, and so utterly incompetent.
The post-match analysis talks about the rise of TLP in this constituency, the surprise victory of PPP because, perhaps, it did smart electioneering by leveraging the power of its provincial government, the effective campaigning by Dr Miftah Ismail and his very strong showing despite being handicapped by the absence of his party’s government anywhere, and of course, the humiliating electoral thrashing of the PTI candidate on a seat that the party had won only three years ago — all this analysis is fine and reasonable, but it misses a larger point that is rooted in a very simple question: why can’t we fix things when we know they are broken?
Why can’t we fix things when we know they are broken?
It is this question that slices open the concept of incompetence and lays it bare to greater scrutiny. Not knowing your job is incompetence. Not caring about the fact that you don’t know your job is a higher level of incompetence. Normalising the fact that you don’t care that you don’t know your job is an even higher level of incompetence. Losing the ability to comprehend the disaster that accompanies normalising the fact that you don’t care that you don’t know your job is the next level of incompetence. And finally, bringing down the entire functioning of the state, and of its functionaries, to a level where governing structures, and those who turn its levers, are incapable of comprehending, even if they want to, the disaster that accompanies normalising the fact that you don’t care that you don’t know your job is the absolute apex of strategic incompetence.
On this scale, where do we find ourselves today?
The evidence is overwhelming, and it pours in from all directions in all shapes and forms. Since at least 1970 we have not been able to hold an election that everyone would accept without reservations. Fifty-one years of continuously reinforcing failures should constitute a problem worth acknowledging. This here is when dishonesty becomes the added ingredient to incompetence. The establishment rigs elections? Sure, we all whisper. Sitting governments rig elections? Yes, who dare deny? The administrative machinery — chief secretaries, commissioners, DCOs, inspectors general of police, DPOs — they all rig elections without remorse and without as much as an abrasion on their conscience? Indeed, sad but true. Here’s the thing though — dishonesty ensures we do not admit this in public.
So you get Daska. The brazen, callous electoral manipulation that upended that by-election and wrapped the Punjab government and its administration in shame, has made the name of this city a verb – perhaps even a noun that shall reverberate through the ages whenever citizens are regaled with stories of stealing elections along with the electoral staff. Post-Daska, the Election Commission of Pakistan lapped up the credit that was due when it took stern measures and ordered a re-poll, but the same ECP had no mechanism in place to ensure timely vote count in NA-249. Why? The inability to comprehend the disaster that accompanies normalising the fact that you don’t care that you don’t know your job can be truly frightening.
Read: What did Daska denote?
For why else would an electoral system of a democracy of 220 million people be utterly rudderless for a few hours in one — just one — constituency? Why else would there be absolute silence from the ECP at a time when the entire nation is grappling with the mystery of the delayed count? Why would some ECP official not come out and make a statement — as is the norm in democracies — and allay all suspicions by providing a valid explanation? Why must the nation have to endure another chaos, another controversy, and another crisis? The answer may lie somewhere in that weird place where incompetence transitions from a specific failing to an acceptable way of life.
The ECP clearly does not want to measure itself up to a higher standard. In Daska the Punjab government tried to steal an election. It would have done so had it not been so utterly incompetent even at electoral rigging. But who is responsible for the Karachi mess? If it is not the ECP, it may want to tell us who to blame. But why just blame the ECP when incompetence is now an accepted vice? Or is it a virtue now? Why blame the ECP when we know that all this talk of electoral reforms by the government is, well, all talk. It is one-upmanship. If the government was really, genuinely and honestly interested in cleaning up the electoral system, it would first explain — really, genuinely and honestly — why it tried to pull a Daska on Daska.
But then why blame the government alone for dishonesty and incompetence? Has any other party really demanded that those who tried to steal Daska be brought to book? Has any other person in this democracy of 220 million citizens insisted on a probe to determine who planned Daska? Who authorised Daska? Who executed Daska? And who should take the fall for Daska?
Incompetence is accepting incompetence and not questioning incompetence. We are all guilty of it. Each one of us. This explains why there is not much unease over the presence of unease that stalked the streets of Karachi that balmy Thursday evening.
Sub chalta hai.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2021