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A plague on all their houses?

March 23, 2013

IT’S been a difficult five years for PPP supporters. But then, that’s nothing new: the last three times the party has been in power, it has been accused of rampant corruption and poor governance.

Sadly, these charges have contained more than a grain of truth. Incumbency, especially in a chaotic, Third World country like Pakistan, inflicts deep scars on those in power. Even the most efficient government could not begin to overcome our many problems in a five-year term. And God knows nobody has ever accused the PPP of efficiency.

What has kept the party faithful in line is the naïve expectation that somehow, the next time will be different. This is truly a triumph of hope over experience. The other factor that has kept liberals like me from breaking ranks is that there’s nowhere else to go.

It is obviously impossible to support the army or the religious parties. The MQM, despite its secular stance, is seen as a violent, ethnic party. In addition, I have trouble understanding Altaf Hussain’s rambling telephonic speeches.

Nawaz Sharif ruled himself out for me by trying to impose his version of the Sharia as the law of the land through the 15th Amendment in his last stint in power. This law would also have made him the amir-ul momineen, or commander of the faithful. The other iterations of the Muslim League are pretty much irrelevant.

The ANP, despite its proud secular heritage, now appears too deeply mired in corruption to merit serious consideration. That leaves Imran Khan’s PTI. While I admire his intensity and passion, I mistrust people without a sense of humour and irony. Every time I have seen him on TV — which is far too often — he has seemed full of anger and self-righteousness. He appears to see the world in black and white, incapable of perceiving shades of grey. Finally, his proximity to extremists remains deeply troubling.

Politics demands compromise, and the ability to get along with people you don’t necessarily agree with. But if Imran Khan is uncompromising, Asif Zardari has bent over backwards so many times that it’s hard to know what he stands for, except his desire to last out his term.

In Pakistan’s context, the completion of a full five-year term by an elected government is certainly an achievement of sorts. And here, credit must also be given to Nawaz Sharif for not trying to destabilise the fragile democratic system. Equally, Gen Kayani has been steadfast in his refusal to heed the many voices calling for military intervention.

But this success is hardly enough to build a re-election campaign on. Despite having completed the five-year marathon, there are too many failures to list here. The biggest one is in the realm of security. Although Rehman Malik has boasted of having broken the Taliban’s back, the sectarian death toll keeps mounting. And Karachi continues to haemorrhage.

Power generation is another dismal failure. Apart from massive shortages that have caused havoc in industry, allegations of corruption continue to swirl around Raja Rental, as the ex-prime minister is known as.

Unbelievable incompetence and indifference to the suffering of citizens has compounded the problem. Public enterprises like the railways, PIA and the Steel Mill are on constant life support.

To its credit, the PPP-led coalition has pushed through some important pro-women legislation, apart from getting a long-delayed agreement on the division of resources among the provinces. The 18th Amendment and the devolution of powers to the provinces is also a feather in the outgoing government’s cap.

However, passing laws and making rules is the easy bit. Implementing them is far harder. And here, the Zardari administration has failed miserably. The excuse often given is that it was hampered by constant judicial intervention. There is some truth in this: witness the constant procession of ministers and civil servants summoned before the Supreme Court.

But at the end of the day, people expect some improvements in their lives brought about by their representatives. It’s not enough to claim that the assemblies have completed their constitutional lives, or that the administration was hamstrung by a hyperactive judiciary.

I have supported the PPP since its formation, even though I have often been very critical of it when it was in power. In her second stint in office, Benazir Bhutto once rang the information secretary to ask why Mazdak (a pseudonym I used when I was in the civil service) had turned against her. The official reportedly replied: “Madam Prime Minister, I don’t know who Mazdak is, and why he has turned against you.”

The point here is that BB knew exactly who I was, and could easily have sacked me. The fact that she was not vindictive is what made her unique among Pakistani politicians. As long as she was alive, there was at least a remote possibility that the PPP would find its bearings. No such possibility exists today.

Hence my quandary: who should I vote for? Having eliminated all the possibilities, I am left with the stark choice of ticking the “none of the above” box, had one existed. But opting out is not an option. Politics is about choices, and we cannot afford the luxury of sitting in our drawing rooms, forever criticising politicians, but refusing to exercise a democratic right so many fought so long to extract from dictators.

Over the years, many young readers have emailed me, asking for advice on which party to join or vote for. I have always urged them to get engaged, and never waste their vote, so I can hardly take the easy way out by wishing a plague on all their houses. Luckily, I have a couple of months to decide.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.