Countdown to 90?

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

THE PTI dharna’s sameness and the government’s passivity are fraying nerves: It’s not a good feeling to be stuck in an unpleasant place and going nowhere. Is the democratic light Imran’s adherents set out to see at the end of their leader’s tunnel vision nearing? Is his effort trailblazing and ground-breaking? Not really, Pakistan’s political history has been much too packed with event and surprise; vision and mirage for that. It didn’t need an Imran-Qadri duo to teach the people their democratic rights or how to ask for them. For Pakistan was born out of mass political consciousness; and it is the first uninterrupted completion of a deplorable democratic term in office that has made people so mindful of post electoral delivery and demanding of better governance from the serving government. Overall, 2013’s election results were acceptable to the voters or they wouldn’t have waited for Imran to sound the clarion call about a robbed mandate from atop a container so many months later.
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But do enough disappointed voters now want a mandate switch, thinking a Qadri-studded/PTI-led government can bring them better governance?

Undoubtedly, Imran is mobilising public discontent against the present incumbents; but he is guilty of another kind of democratic aberration in misusing the right to dissent and exert street power. Given Pakistan’s context, populist demagoguery is worse than gimmickry. It is dangerous: Impassioned hordes and violence often connect. Other parties are revving up to show, they, too, command mass followings.

Emotive politics don’t get rational results.

There is some validity in PML(N) apologist argument that inaction is better than the wrong action; but in the face of a deteriorating situation, inaction too is the wrong action. No government (good or bad) can sit out extended disruption of civic life. The non-PTI variegated parliamentary opposition is faulting the PML(N) for showing no signs of coming to grips with the dharna-framed crisis. The PPP that was voted out in 2013 assert they would have handled the situation otherwise. Indeed they would: and the electorate is unlikely to vote back their carrot-and-stick mode of problem-solving so rapidly. It needs at least a midterm to forget.

Curiously enough, electoral delay would suit the PTI as well. For, if snap national elections are held, the PML(N) may still show a stronger (though weakened) federal mandate than the PTI that so plagues it today in Punjab; and where the PPP mulishly sought to thwart it through yester-term. Imran’s PTI too has lost some votes as a result of its post-electoral conduct and could do with time to refurbish its image. Above all, a snap election does not transcend valid and longstanding public critique of constitutional electoral procedures and infrastructure, and Imran does not endorse this parliament’s right to legislate.

Would Azadi marchers and dharna campers accept elections that took place after a body to their leader’s choice initiates and completes the necessary census, revision of electoral rolls and re-delineation of controversial constituencies without which magnetic ink and the smartest tech are irrelevant? That would be a happy ending for the ‘common cause’. But for those not out there camping, the ink to write it is invisible.

What seems most likely – whether wannabe oligarchs and the PTI intended it or not – is that Imran’s movement will not subside: only it will not remain Imran’s. Witlessly, Imran (in occasional frank tandem with PAT’s Dr Qadri) has nurtured a political mode that opts to smash feckless democracy rather than evolve along with it. Were he to step into a breach his dharna’s battering ram makes in the ‘collapsed rotten system’, the captain’s smashing figure would find other populist messiahs employing his very tactics, leaving him too preoccupied to fulfil his own utterly sincere pledges. To say nothing of a clamour that could arise from disappointed disciples: It’s still too early on in Pakistan’s space age to promise the moon.

As it is, the inbuilt limitations of an enduring dharna are showing and jalsa politics is underway. Shifting locales helps Imran hold on to the bored and replace the weary. He may soon see a Qadri back-up. But avowedly democratic political parties have no justification for escaping into jalsa shows of their public following when they should be working to deliver on effective healthy parliamentary opposition. Mature voters know there are no overnight solutions or relief in a country as hard-pressed as our own and would prefer party leadership to exert pressure without disrupting civic life. Emotive politics don’t get rational results.  It’s a smoothly slippery slope down the dharna’s civil defiance to vigilantism, hooliganism and lawlessness. Which is when the people might rather have the national army call the shots and wield the baton. That mood too will not last, but it only takes a moment to seize it and we live with the consequences for more than ninety days.

Not without cause is Pakistan’s internal civil and military conflict for political power and custodianship of national weal imprinted in public memory. Yet, it is imperative we – and our civil and military overseers – break that mould. The civil government and the army are not counter-posed, unless we deliberately perceive them as such.

It was intelligent of the PM, after July’s appallingly unchecked lethal action on PAT’s adherents in Lahore brought revulsion and mistrust of the PML(N) provincial government to levels of hysteria, to have the army stand by for disaster management of the approaching August tsunami in Islamabad. He was not surrendering or losing civil political power in doing so — he was seeking to sustain it in safeguarding the writ of the state and civic order: Troops have been spasmodically and extensively used in polarised Karachi during many a democratic year. What the PM really has to convince doubters and critics of is that the PML(N) centrally installed government does not have one set of rules for a PML(N)-formed provincial government and another for the rest. The PPP failed to do that from 2007-2012 and saw the results electorally.

In 2014 Imran and Qadri are either fools or insincere to be creating civil emergency conditions in the cause of democratic advance.