On saving democracy and Dharnas

Save Democracy! Save the Constitution!

The 2 Dharnas with all their dramas have generated a deep division in the Pakistan media and perhaps even society. One group (comprising of a strange amalgam of older left liberal activists, NGOs and the old guard politicians) continued to see the invisible hand (which never revealed itself) of the army and a potential coup that has not happened till the time of this writing. Another group (another strange concoction of some youth, TUQ followers, and some media celebrities) chased a confused idealistic vision of Naya Pakistan free of corruption and maladministration.

Unfortunately, the debate really did not get beyond name-calling, conspiracy-searching and crude personalized invective. Dharna crowd could not clearly articulate a vision that grabbed the population at large and overplayed their hand hobbled by incredible ultimatums and outrageous ‘Cromwellian’ demands to wind up parliament.

The ‘save democracy’ crowd on the other hand refused to empathize with some legitimate issues—such as electoral reforms, dynastic, personalized democracy, poor governance and corruption-- that the Dharnas raised. The spectre of ‘the boys’ manipulating the Dharna for a return to martial law was continuously raised to silence disaffection and to allow the system to continue.

‘Save democracy’ people continued to ask for the system to continue in the hope that many elections later it will self-correct. In other words, they have the patience to wait for the filter of elections work over 5 year periods. This might take decades. Perhaps even 3 or 4 generations of dynastic rule.
Strangely enough the leading proponents of the ‘save democracy’ mantra were youth from the Bhutto era now quite oblivious to their own disaffection with the 22 families but with a very strong memory of their aversion to dictatorship.
The Dharna crowd was supported at least initially by the youth that Imran Khan galvanized.  5 years ago in the Framework of Economic Growth at the Planning Commission we had pointed out the need for addressing the youth bulge which is going to be a dominant demographic for the coming 2 decades. The current system neither includes them nor provides them opportunity. In fact it even educates them at a lower quality than what was offered to the Bhutto Youth.
Sadly the ‘save democracy’ and the youth from the Bhutto era did not identify with the youth and offer them anything other than ‘have patience, in a few decades the system will work out its defects—maybe”
A moment for an inter-generational dialog was lost. Youth should have been given hope and leadership even if the Dharna leaders failed in doing so. Too much time was lost in focusing on the personality flaws of the Dharna leaders and not developing any understanding of the significance and meaning of the Dharnas.
The spectre of martial law like the weapons of Mass destruction in Iraq is now being used to quell even a discussion of reform.  The easy approach was to hang on to the refrain that ‘democracy is in danger’ and we don’t want another Martial law. What was coming out clearly was that people wanted change that would offer them hope. They wanted inclusion and opportunity. The current system of privilege does not allow merit to work. They felt that democracy should allow merit and it does not.
TUQ, IK and their personalities and absurd demands took up too much time and a possible reform moment was lost. But our ‘save democracy’ crowd too lost the moment. Their refrain was that democracy must continue with all its many wounds and lesions inflicted by our veteran politicians. The implication was that dynasties are all rights. Families have a right to high office and protocol. PM and ministers need not come to parliament which should be just a rubber stamp. Bureaucracy is the true and faithful ally in an executive that has usurped the spirit of the constitution. All agencies of government and several key ministries can therefore be left headless because trusted bureaucrats will deliver in the interests of the executive if not the country. Personalized and over-powerful government has thus been declared as legal by our ‘save democracy’ crowd.
Somehow these people see the military behind all the problems of Pakistan giving the politicians a large leeway for mistakes.  Another refrain is that democracy requires time and we must have elected governments completing their terms. We forget that we have had 8 elections since 1988 and the results have been more or less predictable. Furthermore it took not more than a year for the tarnish to wear off the elected government and everyone to wish that there was a way to put it behind us. Democratic governments spared no occasion to line their pockets and to weaken institutions of governance to favor the executive.
At no occasion did the democratic government think of making serious reform. Throughout the nineties, economic indicators continued to dwindle as the politicians lined their pockets, signed expensive giveaways such as the IPPs and went in for grandiose projects like the motorway.  When they returned in 2008, once again they continued the earlier tricks. Rental power, LNG deals megaprojects, roads and deals but no reform. SROs and commodity purchases that had been more or less abandoned returned in a big way.
Instead of reinforcing checks and balances, they immediately got rid of term limits and any checks on the PM. Local governments which might have allowed a fresh crop of politicians to be trained and which in any case are better for service delivery were rolled back and are seriously resisted. Even their own party members are kept on a leash as the leadership of parties rules through the bureaucracy and buy out their ministers through handouts.
The lust for power for suspicious reasons keeps our political leaders from making good appointments. In fact hey have a clear preference for centralization. BB refused to have either finance or a foreign minister. The current government keeps both the foreign and the defense portfolios weak.  The last PPP government could not keep a credible SBP governor. This government has failed to make appointments to NEPRA, PEMRA, CCP and many other regulatory bodies. Where they make appointments it is fairly obvious they were not looking for the most credible or the most competent. What happened at NADRA and PEMRA is not a testament to good management by democracy. In the name of democracy, public service and governance has suffered.
While the 90s were a period of overly competitive democracy where both sides tried to vilify the opposition, the recent period has become one of a level cooperation bordering on complicity, vitiating the parliamentary institution. For a serious democracy we need a vibrant opposition, not complicit in keeping no check on the incumbent government. A vibrant opposition would have pushed for an electoral test to break the Dharna stand-off rather than seeking to keep the government in power. The opposition played no role even in the registration of the FIR for Model Town. Surely this is not a parliament that keeps the executive on its toes.
If the democrats really got their act together and were not so hungry for power and money at the expense of governance, perhaps the room for Dharnas and ‘the boys’ would be limited. This is something that the ‘save democracy’ crowd will not even consider. Somehow giving politicians more room to establish their dynasties and financial empires will fix itself. Constitutional amendments that would strengthen democracy could be considered.
The shenanigans of IK and TUQ might have given us an opportunity to deepen our reform discussion. Perhaps we could have discussed and pushed for the kinds of reform that would strengthen democracy like instituting local government in an irrevocable manner. If nothing else this opportunity could have been used to found a narrative to reform.  It could have been used to move ahead with local government and less centralization by the PM and the CMs. Parliament and its role which has dwindled to no laws and minimal attendance in the last year could have come into focus.
With hindsight and distance, I think we will come to appreciate the 2 Dharnas despite all their follies. Hopefully, electoral and other issues crudely raised by them will take root. We seriously need a discussion on reform. And one important reform is the institutions of democracy that, right now, are too easy to hijack.  

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