WITH a new parliament in place, do we have a logical reason to believe that the worst is behind us? Not really. Indeed, Pakistan’s tryst with democracy has been one of naive eagerness and cyclical disillusionment, not unlike a toxic relationship that one feels compelled to endure. Elections after elections, the people readily offer their rights and welfare at the altar of this concept from the West, believing that by some magic or miracle, this one would be the one to unleash the nation’s true potential and take the country forward.

But, alas, the pattern persists, with the fervour and promises of each election season giving way to the sobering realities of governance disconnected from ground realities. Yet, the faithful cling to the belief that democracy, in its idealised form, must surely hold the keys to unlocking justice, accountability and prosperity for the common man.

At the core of this Pakistani pursuit is an endearing, if slightly misplaced, faith in the sanctity of the vote and its power to give voice to the will of the people. When confronted with the question of how a few hundred elected parliamentarians could possibly channel the aspirations of millions in their day-to-day governance, the people simply smile, indicating that this is what democracy is all about.

The elected representatives enter the august house charged with a sacred trust to selflessly serve those who voted them in, cleanly shedding any personal or party agendas. Do they? We cling to the belief that democracy, done right, is worth any sacrifice. Let the streets flow red, and the pockets go empty, but the rituals of voting, parliament and governance must continue. If the rosy vision does not actually fit life on the ground here, who cares? Come to think of it, this is as good as blind faith.

Apparently, democracy’s biggest strength, the way we practise it, is in letting political rivals get back at each other. One group gets five years to reward their cronies and weaken opponents, only for the other to pay back in the same coin later.

Pakistan’s experience with democracy suggests that while the motives were good, the results are not. Perhaps it is time to rethink the basic structure of governance. Models copied from elsewhere fail to fit our realities. Reforms need grounding in what matters to the many, not the few. There could be other ways to structure power and society. Pakistan must search its soul, and then build upwards. The journey is hard, but is surely worth taking.

Pakistan’s road ahead seems set to wind between high ideals of democracy and the rocky realities of governing a complex nation. It may be a sobering ride, but hopefully we will learn from the wins and mistakes along the way. If we are lucky, the lessons of 2024 could inch us towards a system tailored to meet our needs.

For now, the politicians stay convinced that democracy, though flawed, is the only hopeful sign. The dreamers keep dreaming, the faithful keep faith, waiting for Western systems to finally bloom in our Eastern soil. Mirages shine the brightest when the thirst burns the most. Yes, that is true. But persistence and wisdom can sometimes churn even sand into an oasis. Are we ready for that yet?

Dr Imran Sabir
Islamabad

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2024

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