‘The moving finger . . . ‘

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

IS Pakistan’s political process moving in the direction of Ayub’s basic democracy with its manageable electoral college of basic democrats? Senate elections– as quite dramatically opposed to results in bye-elections to PA and NA seats post-Panama– have shown how readily political satisfaction may be obtained for and by the wise who are convinced they know better than the broader mass when it comes to picking appropriate parliamentary personnel. Democratic purists may not describe senators as public reps, but perhaps the intention is to revamp the manufacture of suitable public representation.

Thus, given the shortcomings embarrassingly apparent in parliament, some have been touting proportional representation and party lists. Others recommend reducing the minimum voting age: the young have such a fresh untutored approach. A like-minded school would facilitate expat voters who are away from it all and so can be trusted to be more objective about things back home than locals with antiquated party preferences who live too close to the ground for the right perspective. Then take electoral procedure and preliminaries:  Delineating constituencies afresh should be understood as necessary updating and revision: Not gerrymandering to compensate for earlier gerrymandering.

With so much debate; and much of it accusatory, the emerging popular mood is one of confused distaste. Political rhetoric is venomous as well as hollow. Its unceasing repetitiousness makes listeners yearn for change. And indeed political behavior can be baffling: Those mandated in 2013 spent about two years trying to maintain or discredit electoral results. The chills and thrills of that tug o’ war absorbed much political energy and expended it to no tangible effect other than civic disruption. Then, more or less halfway through the mandate, critical emphasis shifted to an overdue pre-electoral census (which the earlier democratically mandated government and the still earlier non sham-democracy Musharraf governments had postponed successfully) yet doggedly obstructing its materialization by circling round procedural logistics till ordered to get on with it or else.

The census has been conducted, but under a handicap time-wise. Now there is the option of entertaining reconsideration of findings that disconcert some with ‘faulty data’: Which could mean justified postponement of polls or subsequent doubts as to their foundational representativeness.  That could entail an extension of caretaker time—assuming earlier caretaking consensus.

Failure to reach a timely consensus has grim parliamentary implications. The voting public could become increasingly polarized or disillusioned.  But politicians continue to concentrate merely on the struggle to gain/regain personal political power or frustrate those empowered presently. There is cause to think it could be the scope and nature of the voters’ choice that is relevant to those who define good governance and monitor the content and source of the demand for systemic reform: Interventionism can be projected as a patriotic obligation.

Already there is a change of style. Perhaps the most edifying thing for spectator politics is seeing the judiciary evolve. Outmoded is the remote and lofty benchmark that pronounced the yea or nay on whether four-star military constitutional overreach would be absolved as necessary. Supreme justice is now in the ambit of the common man denied the produce of good civil governance. The focus is not a military general’s government’s right to exist but an elected government’s right to exist.  If the military is in the barracks officially unless invited out, the courts are on the move.  What is the state of hospitals; TV programming; public transport; VIP protocol and public inconvenience; adulteration levels; pollution; water potable and arable; fees at private schools and colleges; and so on and so forth.

The flipside of a hands on approach is a hands off one– gloves or no gloves: Ought a generally wanting sub-standard government continue?

And as the preceding one was sub-standard; and the next one could be just a rehash of the same perhaps we need a change of system and face. The young do not personally remember Pakistan has been down that path before and the fine intentions that guided us there brought political hell and geographical and social national disaster. Even if the economy thrived it was ‘20 families’ that prospered.

The alarm bells are ringing for all of us. What kind of change do we want/need?  Can we come together over working at governance rationally or are we determined to knock each other out and create a perilous political vacuum?   The real lesson to draw from the Senate elections is that Raza Rabbani—lauded inside and outside the Senate—was rejected by his own party as a consensual candidate simply because the PML(N) liked and trusted him too. What was lost in the upper house of the federation is much more significant than how it was won.