Remember remember ? November

Imran (L) and Nawaz
Imran (L) and Nawaz

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributor Pakistan’s democracy is an evolutionary process in which representative legislation derived from the popular electoral mandate moves in the direction of better governance. The electorate and the elected learn politically and self-correct. The mandates conferred in 2008 and 2013 may be viewed in that light: Government at the federal centre changed hands each time, and provincial mandates mutated. Tahirul Qadri’s PAT established an irrelevance within the electoral process; while Imran Khan’s PTI registered a significant though scattered national rise, and formed the government in KP. Given the PPP’s decline, Imran’s party emerged as a vibrant third force in the national parliamentary configuration. But the overall electoral outcome left Punjab in the grip of the PML(N) – where Imran tirelessly alleges massive rigging – and denied the PTI a high profile in urban Sindh.

Setting aside what the party may or may not have established about its ability to govern by the standards it demands in others; what example has its oppositional mode offered in terms of federal politics – which — as Pakistan is a federal republic – has acute relevance for each one of its citizens.

Alas, the PTI’s dependence on mass agitation and inflammatory demagoguery that exacerbates economic and social grudges and alienations, while urging people to take to the streets and stall civic life till PM Nawaz Sharif goes, tends to implosive anarchy rather than democratic advancement or meaningful reformatory legislation. And, as other parties also have followers entitled to at least as much democratic public space as the PTI, the kind of fracas that could ensue on the streets in what is almost bound to become a confrontational challenge between party activists, could merit the euphemism of internecine clashes.

In the undoubtedly valid cause of tackling electoral fraud and graft do we want the venal inadequate democratic system so shaken that the entire edifice collapses outright? The PTI’s approach to ‘tabdeeli’ is alarmingly apposite to the street-power-run-amok that blighted many an Arab spring. Tahirul Qadri was quite frank in 2007 about intending to overturn the entire democratic applecart. Intentionally or unintentionally, Imran might yet do it for him – and us all.

Is risking the constitutional setup representative of public will?

PTI’s power lords assert the masses that come out for Imran confirm the equivalent of a carte blanche for their leader. Such attitudes reek of a crass political arrogance. People were not raising an outcry urging Imran to overthrow Nawaz Sharif for corruption and electoral fraud: It is more appropriate to say Imran is inciting them. His itinerary and political calendar show him all over the place appealing for people to join him in the lockdown, facilitating transport and street hospitality.

It appears the PTI sees no distinction between law enforcement agencies using their powers to police the streets and keep civic life moving and its own, avowedly obstructive, jamming and ‘closure’ of Pakistan’s capital. He has repeatedly said lathis will be met with lathis. For him, the right to dissent overrides an elected government’s mandate – and responsibility – to govern. Somewhere along Imran’s container’s merry way the ‘tabdeeli’s’ cargo changed from good governance to the acquisition of the power to provide it in his own way: that way is undisclosed – and possibly unknown even to him.

In Pakistan, wise politicians would invoke calm rather than frenzied passion: ‘jazba’. In our grievously over-populated country and its congested urban context – with its pathetically limited network of roads and civic resource anyone – a Wawda; a Sikander; sundry professional bodies; righteous civil society activists; helpless and frustrated myriads – can bring normal life to a standstill at a given point. Undoubtedly the organizational closure of Islamabad is achievable.

Undoubtedly the government will be embarrassed: whether it takes pre-emptive measures or watches passively. In the one case it will be termed coercive and intimidatory; in the other it will be termed ineffectual and pusillanimous.

Military leadership currently has assisted, not overlooked, elected incumbent governments. There is no reason to fear that Mr Nawaz Sharif’s government will lose ground if the troops are entrusted with law and order in Islamabad to pre-empt the emerging emergency PTI tactical oppositional folly has worked so hard to foster. The democratically minded in Pakistan must compliment saner voices in other political parties for not endorsing Imran Khan’s ways and means. The PTI may have good intentions; but its present route to good governance misinterprets and ignores democratic norms. It is imperative to avert a crisis in government. Were it to crystallise whether we blame a stubborn PM; a foolish party leader; or unthinking partisans and activists will really make no difference at all to the ugly consequences for ourselves and the country we gained at a great cost. It will be every Pakistani’s tragedy whosoever imperils it.