The cure for democracy

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As the MQM struggles to free itself from itself, it may appear that a tectonic shift is underway in the politics of urban Sindh. This may yet be true — though scepticism lurks around the Azizabad corner — but in the strategic landscape of Pakistani politics this may not be more than a tactical event.

Bigger questions continue to hover uncomfortably under the light shade of the democratic sapling; questions that torment the victims of the current system; questions that hide in plain sight while the nation valiantly endures the rigours of the grandly-titled democratic project.

Mention this project in a slightly critical tone and alarm bells start to ring in holier-than-thou circles. “Look he’s calling in the generals!” shouts the hysterical crowd, “look he abhors democracy, elections and the will of the people.” And therein ends the circular debate around evolution of political thought.

Sharif in Islamabad or Sharif in Rawalpindi — take your pick? Here’s where political and intellectual bankruptcies smash into each other in a fiery explosion of dead ideas.

Only the deadest of dead ideas can present the populace a choice between two individuals when what matters is not who they are but what they represent. Between the bullet and the ballot there exists a wide chasm of possibilities. But what use of the bullet? And more significantly what kind of ballot?

Last week I discussed the inherent incapacity of the Pakistani bureaucracy to handle the magnitude of the reform required at this moment. The civil service is infested with good men and women secretly harbouring noble intentions. Yet they are victims of the system that spawned them; they are straitjacketed by the confines of a suffocating state structure which reinforces its strength from the mediocrity of its graded minions.

The bureaucrat in Pakistan is trapped inside the steel frame of his service. He deserves sympathy. He deserves freedom. He gets neither.

But while he may oil the creaking wheel of the rotting system, his is not the hand that pushes the wheel. This hand is attached to the body owned by Sharif, and the other Sharif — or specifically the two institutional systems they represent. Since 1947 they have taken turns to make the system work for those for whom it exists — you and I — and the fruits of their glorious failure lie scattered across this hospitable land.

For why else would the fundamentals of any civilised and modern society not exist within these borders of our Homeland? Why else would the absolute rule of law not pervade every nook and corner of Pakistan? Why else would justice not be available in equal measure to every citizen regardless of his social and financial status? Why else would every single child not be gifted with quality and affordable education so she could maximise her God-given potential instead of suffering the disadvantage bequeathed to her by the State of Pakistan? Why else would the leaders still talk about looking after the poor instead of helping them climb out of poverty? Why else would we still discriminate against women, minorities and vulnerable member of our society, and why else would we still nurture a relic like the Council of Islamic Ideology?

And perhaps more importantly, why else would the absolute best and the brightest not be able to lead us?

This question picks up the thread from where the Sharif vs Sharif debate ends: If not one Sharif or the other (metaphorically speaking), then who? And how?

Remember the cliche “the cure for democracy is more democracy”? Well, what if that were an option?

The need for such an option is premised on a realisation that democracy needs a cure. The ailment in question is not a state secret. Consider: One; political parties are elected, but they remain family limited companies lorded over by an individual. No reasonable person within the PML-N can ever think of becoming the party head if he is not genetically linked to House Sharif. Ditto logic for the PPP, PTI, ANP, and JUI. Why would the best brains in Pakistan opt for a career in politics if they know they can never rise to the top through the party system that forms the core of the current democratic project?

Two; those who win through this system, run the government and make policy that impacts the lives of us all, are ill-suited for the task. Try digest the enormity and intensity of this farce through the following example: After the 18th Amendment, education is a provincial subject. It so happens that the Education Minister portfolio is not a sought-after one so the backbencher among the elected candidates gets it. In most cases he has little background, little qualification and little interest in his portfolio except for the patronage it can enable him to shower on close circle of friends and family as well as his constituents.

He is one half of the policymaking apparatus; the other half is the secretary of the ministry. He or she of course is a career officer who jumps from ministry to ministry and is a Jack or Jill of all trades. By the nature of his career, he cannot be a specialist. The top incentive for the secretary education to do a good job in policymaking? So he can become secretary interior.

And that’s pretty much it for policymaking. Yes the chief minister or the prime minister have the final word in their respective domains, but as chief executives they are not expected to go into the minor details of policymaking. And in any case, they too are ill-equipped for such specific work.

Cut and paste this farce across all ministries and official departments and you can imagine why a cure is needed. Sure we can have elections for another hundred years and they will keep providing us legitimacy. But what if legitimacy alone is not enough? What if we need solutions too? Do we turn to the other Sharif?

No.

Parliamentary democracy as practised in Pakistan does not provide us the solutions to our policymaking nightmare, but democracy as practised in so many other countries across the world may do so. We should be looking for reform that retains the legitimacy of the elected parliament while rescuing the critical task of policymaking and executive functions from the clutches of incompetent electables. Legitimacy can supervise competence; it cannot replace it.

If we want to graduate to a higher and more sophisticated level of democracy by reforming the existing nascent model, options are available as exercised in many mature democracies of the world. But such reform can only be mandated and legislated by parliaments and governments. These institutions are composed of men and women who stand to lose their power over patronage that the current system provides them. These electables cannot be expected to reform away their own power even when the 200 million-strong population is desperate for such reform. It is in such desperation that people turn to the other Sharif.

If only the democrats could give us more democracy.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 28th, 2016.