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The circus of democracy

May 09, 2013

POLITICIANS invented democracy as a joke, and electorates have taken it seriously. One has only to follow the latest election campaign in Pakistan to be reminded that in politics, as in the theatre, comedy like tragedy is a very serious business.

Aldous Huxley once observed that while we look at comedy, in tragedy, we participate. For the past six weeks we as a nation have watched. On May 11, we will have an opportunity to participate.

Six weeks ago, at the outset of their campaigns, almost all the parties complained that the time available to them for electioneering was too short. Now, with polling day only two days away, already warring politicians have begun showing signs of exhaustion. Tired of exchanging blows, they have stooped to trading insults, more often than not aimed below the belt. Their flaccid tongues and weary arms flail aimlessly at targets no longer within reach.

No rules (the tut-tuts of the Election Commission notwithstanding) have governed this gladiatorial contest. It has been a fight to the finish, except that in this arena, the end will not be death in the sawdust or the liberty never to fight again. It will be the beginning of a different sort of servitude, a new five-year parliamentary term.

During this electoral campaign, leaders from all the major parties (with the exception of the PPP and the MQM) have crisscrossed constituencies across the country. They came. They saw. More importantly, they were seen. But only on polling day will they know whether or not they have conquered.

Modern electioneering has undergone a transformation. There is no room nowadays for gifted speechwriters like Ted Sorenson who articulated John F. Kennedy’s thoughts with such memorable brilliance. There is no place for gifted orators such as Harold Wilson or our own Quaid-i-Azam M.A. Jinnah. Technology has come between a candidate and his audience.

In an earlier age, daily newspapers brought politics to the breakfast table. Today’s television transmissions serve it like a 24-hour buffet, in which dishes are constantly refilled. They are not allowed to go cold or become stale. The servings may be bland, at times indigestible. They may be tasteless. What matters is only that they should be fresh.

Speeches in the field pass through a number of filtering screens — bullet-proof ones at public rallies, the monitors of news editors who mincemeat a continuous flow of harangues into sausage-sized sound-bites, and finally the television screen where the voter can, at the touch of a fingertip, decide which candidate to switch on or off.

In a sense, the electoral campaign for the next National Assembly 2013 began five years ago, in 2008, when the proceedings of the last Assembly were televised live. Over those five years, the public has been a spectator of the Pakistani equivalent of the Roman Circus Maximus. “When the politicians complain that TV turns their proceedings into a circus,” Ed Murrow (the doyen of American broadcasters) had once written, “it should be made plain that the circus was already there, and that TV has merely demonstrated that not all the performers were well-trained.”

Will the next batch of MNAs be better trained than their predecessors? Will they perform better? Will they be younger and therefore more proactive? It would need a seer with 40:40 vision to predict what will be the composition of the next National Assembly, or who will form the next national government. What is clear, though, is that every party, not just the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, regardless of its ideology, will need to prepare for a change within itself, to make space for greener shoots.

Over the next five years, our television channels will continue to play a role as crucial as they have during the past six weeks. Until now, they have been projecting personalities and highlighting policies. Their future responsibility will be that of a watchdog with the added instincts of a bloodhound — to reveal, to expose, and whenever necessary, to help apprehend those elected representatives who fall short of national expectations. It is a heady responsibility, though, and not one to be taken casually.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better,” the former US president Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1910. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

At this time in our political chronology, as we stumble awkwardly towards democratic maturity, we, the passive voters, “those cold and timid souls” who know neither personal victory nor defeat, should salute those thousands of candidates who will not be elected, those who will “fail while daring greatly”. In that defeat, they too will have served our national interest.

The writer is an author.