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Beyond slogans

November 03, 2011

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PAKISTAN’S politics has received a shot in the arm over the past few days. Two public rallies in Lahore, where all the decisive political battles have been fought, and the one in Karachi marked the resumption of political parties’ attempts to woo the public, their realisation that the road to power lies through the hearts of the people.

The significance of this development cannot be exaggerated. Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its politicians’ frequent reliance on non-political elements for their ascent to power. It is impossible to say that no one is now looking up to praetorian guards always present in the wings or that experts in extra-constitutional interruptions have abandoned their profession, but if the citizens, especially the younger generation, continue their engagement with political parties and their participation in politics becomes more and more meaningful Pakistan may still be able to realise its dream of a representative government that is also responsible.

Before that objective can be realised the level and tone of the political debate in the country will have to be broadened and, in some respects, restructured. What the politicians have so far said to the people can be summed up in a few words. The dominant theme has been that ‘others’ are incompetent and corrupt and that ‘we’ have the ability to set everything right. Much has been said about ‘our’ resolve to throw the wrongdoers into the dustbin of history and bring back the country’s wealth that the looters have stacked abroad.

While running down their rivals and advancing their own claims to elective offices, the political leaders are referring to what they think the people’s priorities are. Corruption is denounced, an end to the energy crisis is promised, the idea of fighting foreign patrons’ wars is repudiated, Balochistan is offered reconciliation and paeans are offered to ‘change’.

What has been said may not be unimportant but perhaps what has been left unsaid is no less important. Has due attention been paid to the plight of the people, a majority of the population, that are trapped in a vicious circle of feudal oppression and peasants’ brutal exploitation?

Is it possible to lay the foundations of people’s prosperity without mitigating the rural masses’ hunger for land and opportunities for development? Has anybody taken note of the problems faced by the working class, especially the erosion of their rights over the past four decades? What precisely is to be done to allow women their due or to do justice to the various minorities? Even the issues taken note of have been partially addressed. Only certain politicians are condemned for exporting national wealth. What about businessmen who have developed trade or real estate abroad?

The will to look outside the system is not in evidence. It is possible that the political parties and the people are putting different interpretations on the need for change. While the former are interested only in a change of faces it will be impossible to bring about the kind of change that will meet the people’s aspirations without overhauling the entire system of governance.

This gap between perceptions is highlighted by the disproportionate emphasis on corruption by individuals and near total indifference to the corruption of the system. While a great deal of noise is being made about punishing the abuse of authority no heed is paid to systemic shortcomings that make corruption possible and enable the corrupt to get away.

Why is no one challenging the highly objectionable system of paying cash grants to legislators? It is time to bring into public debate the reasons for ignoring the administrative reform proposals made over the past 50 years by commissions headed by eminent persons, from Cornelius to Ishrat Husain.

The people do want the wrongdoers to be called to account but the present rhetoric on this issue could amount to giving the decrepit system a clean bill of health and that will be a fatal mistake. Will the recovery of ill-gotten wealth from politicians be enough to overcome the basic flaws in economic management? Certainly not. Thus like any sane businessman who does not rely solely on recovering bad debts the politicians must continue their search for the efficient husbanding of national resources.

Further, there is a need to move beyond slogans and mottos and start tackling the causes of the state’s derailment. For instance, it is not enough to say that justice will be secured for the people of Balochistan. They do not want any outsider to do justice to them, they only need self-government to be able to do justice by themselves. In other words, Balochistan deserves to regain its full status as an equal unit of the federation that is still in the making.

Since the need to structure the state of Pakistan as a democratic federation was ignored for six decades and the 18th Amendment only marks the beginning of an arduous journey, the people’s demands and expectations have ballooned to unmanageable proportions and the task of determining priorities has become difficult. Still there is an urgent need for a breakthrough in some areas as discussed below.

— Since political parties are the only legitimate agents of change they should concentrate on organising themselves into knowledge-based outfits and allowing two-way communication between patriarchs and working cadres. They must desist from treating one another as their worst enemies for that only alienates the people from politics and clears the way for usurpers of the people’s sovereign rights.

— The national economy cannot be set right so long as the state’s security needs, as defined by the beneficiaries of outmoded defence theories and myths, are considered immutable and used to justify denial of the citizens’ basic needs and rights.

— The political system needs three basic changes: one, the movement towards establishing a genuine federation of willing coordinates must continue without reservations and resort to crude attempts to circumvent devolution. Secondly, the days of majoritarian democracy are gone and Pakistan will harm its own cause by resisting progress towards participatory democracy. And, thirdly, a way will have to be found to stop political abuse of belief because this curse can negate all progress Pakistan may make in any field.

— Drone attacks or Pentagon-ISI squabbles are not the only issues that should determine Pakistan’s foreign policy. Times demand a fresh look at Pakistan’s long-term interests in the region. Instead of competing with the neighbours in Afghanistan and elsewhere the path of cooperation and collaboration with them, especially India, needs to be adopted.

There is plenty of time for the pretenders to the throne to have a serious discourse with the people so that the latter are clear about the change Pakistan needs and they are not again cheated out of the fruits of the change they might bring about.