What’ll it be?

June 17, 2011


WHEN faced with a large selection of options at a restaurant, diners can have a hard time deciding what to order. They keep the waiter hanging around, pencil in hand, trying to guide customers in making up their minds.

But what’s your excuse for prevaricating when the menu only has four dishes on offer? I refer here to the political choices on offer in Pakistan: you can choose between military rule, a theocracy, a PPP-led government, or a Muslim League alphabet soup. That’s it. Period.

Listening to the pundits on TV, or the chatter on the Internet, one would think there is a huge array of options to select from. Liberals are especially wishy-washy. They’d never agree to being governed by a military junta. Obviously, being ruled by an ayatollah-style government would be unthinkable. And can you imagine having a closet fundo like Nawaz Sharif in charge?

Clearly, Zardari and his larcenous PPP cronies can’t stay a moment longer. Enough is enough. These crooks are ruining the country, and must be turfed out. Fine, but you’ve just run out of choices.

And yet, regrettable though it might be, you have to choose. The country has to have a government, and I don’t see any overwhelming appetite in Britain to re-colonise its empire any time soon. So, the waiter asks a bit impatiently, what’ll it be?

Decisions, decisions…. The truth is that in Pakistan, we have more choices than the citizens of most countries do. In most democracies, there are two major parties, and come election time, you end up with one or the other. Occasionally, as a sop to jaded palates, you get a coalition, but even that has one of the big boys as the major partner.

Here in Pakistan, the army has muscled its way on to the menu by holding a gun to our heads. And traditionally, the only way religious parties get to rule is by giving support and legitimacy to military governments. They don’t have enough diners voting for them to get picked on their own; nevertheless, they have been driving the country’s agenda for much of its existence. So like it or not (and I certainly don’t), they are very much on the menu.

One problem with most of our chattering class is that while they know what they are against, they cannot decide what they are for. While blasting whatever government is in power, they have a hard time in spelling out exactly which out of the four options before us they would welcome.

When talking about the need for decent governance — surely a most worthy goal — they simply cannot spell out who, among the choices on offer, would come closest to delivering it. And it’s not as if we haven’t experienced all of them. This is the PPP’s fourth tenure; granted, three of them were cut short by military intervention, and the current one is still to run its course.

Nawaz Sharif, waiting impatiently in the wings, has had two shots at running the country, although both his innings were also terminated early by the army.

The military has directly ruled longer than elected civilians in Pakistan’s history. Each time the generals have left a bigger mess. And they have also introduced the country to mullah rule under Gen Zia for nearly a decade, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for five years under Gen Musharraf.

So what’s not to know? Having tasted all the four dishes on offer repeatedly, I can understand the diner’s reluctance in deciding: the poor guy’s having a hard time suppressing his gag reflex. But while I can sympathise, the waiter still has to know what you want.

The problem here is that once you order, you can’t send your dish back. It’s all you are getting for the next five years. Unless, of course, you order the khaki special of the day, and then end up staring at the poisonous offering before you for a decade or more. Another downside with the military option is that you can’t complain about it to the manager.

Politics is about choices. Lacking the perfect dish, you settle for whatever is the least bad option in the hope that it won’t poison you. A large proportion of our whingeing liberals do not take the trouble to vote, and then complain about the party that gets elected, and sneer at the ‘uneducated rabble’ that voted for it.

‘How’, they ask plaintively, ‘Can we have good governance when crooks and ruffians are elected by illiterate voters?

Obviously, Pakistan isn’t ready for democracy.’ Obviously. But it would help if these same critics got off their backsides and participated in the political process. When I ask these people if they would prefer martial law, they indignantly deny that this is what they would actually like.

The sad truth is that many of those who parade as democrats are happiest — or least miserable — when the army is in charge.

Over the last three years of this government’s tenure, hardly a day has passed without some variation of an appeal addressed to GHQ to intervene. Couched as criticism, the subtext is: why doesn’t the army act?I hold no brief for this government, but want it to complete its tenure so we can finally establish a tradition of elected leaders completing their term of office before being voted out. The popular mandate should not be trampled underfoot by unelected generals, unelectable pundits and leaders of tonga parties who yearn to be thrown crumbs at by a military junta.

Countries that have evolved into stable democracies have done it the hard way. Pakistan does not have a monopoly on political corruption. Just look across the border, and you will see cronyism and graft of a vastly different magnitude to ours flourishing without calls for military intervention. But after the many corruption cases that have come to light, perhaps the Indian voters will throw some of the crooks out.

Maybe we really aren’t ready for democracy. Not because of our largely uneducated voters — who, by the way, have voted mostly sensibly every time they have got the chance — but because of our spoiled elites. Secretly wishing for an autocrat who would confirm them in their sense of entitlement, they rage against those they feel are their social inferiors, but have risen to power because of ‘ignorant voters’.

So the waiter asks again: what’ll it be?