Polls: what for and why?

Published November 10, 2023
The writer is the co-author of Pakistan ka matlab kya?, Aks Publications, 2022.
The writer is the co-author of Pakistan ka matlab kya?, Aks Publications, 2022.

THERE has been a continuing fuss about elections and now that a date has been announced it will reach fever pitch with all else forgotten. It is as if our history will begin on Feb 8 and the entire past can be ignored. How sensible is this?

Elections in Pakistan are like the gladiator contests of Rome. Each contest was a unique event with no connection to the past or the future. At the end, the emperor gave a thumbs up or thumbs down signal to indicate who was to be saved and who was to die and that was the end of the matter till the next contest.

The gladiator contests were intended for entertainment to go along with the circuses. The historian Ramachandra Guha in his book India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy noted that an election has turned in India into a mela — “a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years”.

In Pakistan, the transformation is nowhere so benign, neither entertainment nor festival. Elections are Machiavellian duels inflicting long-lasting wounds. All the more reason to take a deep breath and examine their history in order to better anticipate the future.

In the ideal conception of representative dem­o­c­racy, elections are supposed to elicit the will of the people which the party elected is mandated to implement. Government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people. In Pak­is­tan, however, the entire focus of the groups in power is to find a way to thwart the people’s will.

Elections in Pakistan are like the gladiator contests of Rome.

Begin at the very beginning with the 1954 legislative elections in East Bengal. The Muslim League was routed but within weeks the elected United Front government was dismissed by the centre and the infamous One Unit invented to neutralise the eastern wing.

The elections due under the 1956 Constitution were scuppered altogether with the imposition of a 10-year martial law and most politicians banned. All sorts of machinations ensued to create king’s parties answerable to rulers and not to citizens.

There is no need to recount the subsequent history in which every election was either rigged or subverted or turned into a selection in order to frustrate the will of the people.

However, the clinching evidence, the election of 1970, needs to be reviewed soberly without trying to deceive oneself. The only time a fair election was held, the rulers considered it worth the price to sever half the country rather than to accept the will of the people.

What more proof is needed that in Pakistan an election is not a means to govern in accordance with popular preferences; rather it is an obstacle to be negotiated by the rulers no matter what the price and by whatever means needed.

Add to this the revealed attitude to democracy of the rulers that is in stark contradiction to their words. Almost every one of them desires to use the electoral system only to render it toothless by becoming an ‘ameer-ul-momineen’ with an absolute majority that puts paid to the opposition.

Thrice dictators have actually succeeded in achieving that power, each time with catastrophic results. The essential realisation that democracy entails coexisting with an opposition to solve problems is missing. The rulers are living in the age of monarchy in which Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh could not both be alive at the same time.

There is one distinct difference, however. Pakistan is more akin to the second half of the Mughal era with power no longer in the hands of kings but in those of kingmakers. Now political parties seek office only to choose those who will rule over them. Lions turn into pussycats in no time when the light turns green from red.

It is a surreal dynamic with fatal consequences. Each successive round has left the nation worse off than before and with the lights going out and the country having to borrow from one to pay the other, the forthcoming election might well be the last nail in the coffin.

One might ask, of course, why we have a system of governance that the field marshal recognised very early on was not suited to the ‘genius’ of our people and where even the chairmanship of the PCB has to the extended under the ‘doctrine of necessity’?

The answer is simple. It is so because in the modern era there is no other system that has global acceptability for pro-West countries. It is inconceivable to go back to khilafat or monarchy, and strong-man rule has failed miserably.

We are locked into this perverse configuration in which the holders of power are continuously and blatantly engaged in the battle to frustrate the very intent on which the system is premised.

Does that mean that nothing can be done? I have three suggestions to offer. First, voters can just say that they have seen through this charade and refuse to participate. If the turnout falls below 25 per cent, the entire process will be exposed for the sham that it is.

Second, citizens should insist that the ballot include the choice of ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA). Citizens should not be insulted by being offered a choice between ‘thieves’, a label I may be excused for using because the candidates have chosen it themselves for each other.

The third way out is sortition which is the option I favour. We can retain an electoral system with a citizens’ assembly chosen at random. I have spelled this out in earlier columns and need not reproduce the details; they can be sufficiently elaborated in a conference.

I am confident that a randomly chosen assembly with a pre-defined term, being representative of the country’s population, will do much better than what is being done to us by unrepresentative leaders and their patrons who stand thoroughly exposed, perhaps even in their own eyes if not in those of whoever is looking down upon us.

Pakistan cannot afford more of the same. It is time to say ‘no’.

The writer is the co-author of Pakistan ka matlab kya?, Aks Publications, 2022.

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2023

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