Getting to know Change

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani  

WE ARE now more than six months into a federal government formed by the PTI. The party disrupted the emergent tradition of two main federally operative parties: the PPP and the PML(N) have now to contend with a powerful entrenched third factor.

      Today, the PTI’s voice resonates as the country’s. Apart from a reiteration of the conviction that the PPP and the PML(N) are entirely responsible and answerable for each and every ill that besets Pakistan; what is it saying for us and to us? And what is it doing to treat those maladies or to dispel political and socio-cultural misgivings as felt and voiced by the people themselves rather than presumed or ascribed to them?

          At best the outlook is hazy.

          Hardly anything precise is known as to the PM’s personal understanding and preferred political commitments to the processes and principles of the parliamentary democratic structures that brought him to his present office. Change was the PTI’s single-word slogan. But what is the content and manner of Change? Is its nature merely unknown or is it unformulated or is it to be revealed only gradually?

    The public has little to go by except individual perceptual bias affected by interaction with media-mentoring and quantitative social-media weightage.

          The PTI may be completely new to control and management of federal administration, but it has had five years at the helm of provincial government in KP. It cannot be unaware of the substance and relevance of the provincial voice and federating unit to the federation. It is part of the business and constitutional responsibility of the central government—leading from the platform of the national parliament wherefrom it derives its own executive authority—to coordinate and harmonise inter-provincial matters.

      Reconciliation not alienation: Pakistan’s existent democratic system conceptually and practically devolves on plurality and diversity. The now constantly denigrated preceding democratic process, and its faulty standard bearers—the traditional leaders of its variegated legions—remain dear to the people, warts and all. Electoral results and post-election developments show them uneradicated as vehicles of important and undeniable segments for both national and provincial political sentiment and aspiration.  

          An observable fact is that the innate popular expectations and pressure of dependence on periodic electoral endorsement, while admitting cronyism, nepotism and straightforward bribery and self-enrichment, was also breeding a rejection of these: But the demand was for better performance not systemic rejection or party elimination.

Popular democratic evolving consciousness—not the merry ragtag of entertaining jalsas, as slickly event-managed as any high society charity fund-raiser or frankly self-indulgent wedding exravaganza—was what gave the long-struggling captain the opportunity to lead his team into the national political arena.

 PTI adherents liken the victory to a tsunami. What does the PM intend to do about accommodating oppositional electoral segments who do not see things his way despite the incarceration or impending incarceration of party founders, and leaders in the hierarchy? How does he envisage coping with uneasy minorities or an obstructively roiling opposition such as he exemplified? Whether he ignores them or suppresses them, neither course is supportive of the democratic way.

          The PM has long been an international cricket celebrity, hospital founder, and sexy playboy of the sort beloved of tabloids. In his limping political debut he initially echoed General Hamid Gul’s dislike of ‘brownsahibs’ in the bureaucracy and politics who appropriated the colonialist mode for themselves in governing Pakistan and managing its politics. Some observers deemed him a demonstrable male chauvinist and temperamentally obscurantist. He was, though, quite rightly able to stress his own politically clean and shining slate, omitting any caveat that he had no opportunity to abuse political powers he did not have. But even his unkindest critics were convinced of his social concern and empathy for the wronged, disregarded and unprivileged: the great mass of the population whatever their party affiliations.

          The PM was elected on the basis of universal adult franchise to membership of parliament. His tactics in opposition are known: what mattered was that he win, not how he played the game. He recklessly played upon sentiments of rage and frustration. Post elections, although it is ‘his’ house to lead, the Captain as the media love to call him, seems uneasy in parliament where he is merely primus inter pares. He is at ease with cabinet meetings, but for all its size the spirit is of a kitchen cabinet. Expats have sat in on cabinet meetings. As he is unquestioned master of his parliamentary team and official advisers, one must assume he is not disapproving of the insulting vocabulary they have made integral to political public discourse. Also characterising party discourse is a compulsive almost sycophantic reference and tribute to the leader. This is disquietingly evocative of an intolerant one leader one-party system. When it comes to facing charges that parliament is sidelined, or is doing very little to justify the burden of expense it places on the exchequer;  the opposition is singled out for responding to insult and innuendo by stomping, shouting or simply walking out. Much is made of the PM’s laggard concession to precedent that the leader of the opposition chair the public accounts committee. How could the corrupt former CM Punjab be trusted to vet evaluation of past misdeeds? The defence we do not hear is that the public accounts committee needs also to focus on present management and procedures not just dwell on the past. There is little official reminder or appreciation of the instant and unsolicited solidarity the opposition offered the incumbents in the face of India’s violations of Pakistan’s airspace.  One may say that is how every single Pakistani felt and the opposition could not have responded otherwise; but what grounds then for questioning Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s patriotism when he traverses Sindh in a ‘train march’?

          The PM is rooted in a personal political popularity and may not realise that to utilise that strength he needs a party organisation and cohesion he does not have. Within parliament he is over dependent on the goodwill of electables of the sort he holds contemptible when found in someone else’s pocket. How dependent is he on establishment goodwill? He very clearly enjoys it at present, but Pakistan’s electorate, comprised of individuals who may or may not have voted PTI, don’t know how apolitical the judiciary or military mind may be institutionally speaking. Every citizen has the right to vote as they please. But if institutions are to become party to sustaining or determining the national political process, civil society has a right to share their manifestoes.