The Fault in Our Stars

With the PTI’s saddle-adjustment over and a debt crisis (temporarily) averted, it may be worth refocusing attention onto the guardrails of Pakistan’s democracy.

Will the next four years of PTI rule usher in real growth and democratic strengthening, or will we see heightened pressure on the press, rule-by-fiat, and efforts by the party to create a regime in its own image?

Over the course of our seventy-year history, there aren’t many vices we haven’t tried on for size. Naked power, exclusivism, demagoguery and militarism enfeebled our political institutions and blunted our sensitivity to coup plotters and plutocrats. From doctrines of necessity, to ushering in 1971, to replacing autocrats with their protégés, the list of mistakes is long, and best not repeated.

After 2008, we were told we had turned a corner, even if we had stumbled to get there. The system had learnt not only to endure, but to also be more responsive to the ebb and flow of public faith in the country’s institutions. The media was unbridled and outspoken. And in 2018, we lived through the country’s second consecutive transfer of civilian power, albeit one that was packaged as a referendum on public virtue.

Writing in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton mused: “History will teach us that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

Indeed, something unexpected happened in the years preceding the 2018 general election, just as the PTI’s street power began to eclipse that of the Sharifs. The system, in part from its inability to credibly deliver on basic promises – growth, security, and prosperity – found itself midwifing an hour of populist nationalism. It supplied the PAT, the PTI, the horrors of Model Town, and an electorate that chafed against the creaking inefficiencies and injustices of the status quo.

The dusty campaign trail whet the public’s appetite for gifted stump speakers who vowed to wage wars on corrupt and self-regarding elites. To sell the dream, the PTI took advantage of the blurring of urban and rural borderlines, and dangled progressive promises of decent housing, 10 million jobs, and the bringing back of looted wealth.

Voter allegiances were ripe for the picking. Despite his historic mandate, Prime Minister Sharif had failed to win over the private sector, make good on his promises to big businesses, fix the system’s basic inefficiencies, and, towards the end, govern in a way that was even remotely inclusive or transparent. The promised target of 4 percent growth in the agriculture sector was never met. Health and education saw little improvement. Four out of every 10 children born in abject poverty were told they would remain abjectly poor throughout their lives.South Punjab remained a distant pipedream.

The idiom of economic injustice turns on a peculiar combination of turbo capitalism and predation. The PTI’s insistence that corrupt politicians be made to lose illicit savings and pay taxes has a radically simple appeal – simple, enough, to be embraced by rancid cyber thugs, whose calumnies today throttle freedom of speech.

The election of 2018, more than any other election, actualized a gamut of rhetorical opposites: incrementalists v revolutionists, liberals v fascists, Islamic modernists v secularists. Since last July, the system has well and truly been weaned on the dangerous idea that democracy has been rigged by a corrupt elite, and that there is only one savior.

The purpose of the above is to draw attention to three political repercussions we are now facing.

First: in our post Panama search for trickle-down accountability, the democratic polity has split into two groups: those arbitrarily curating definitions of accountability, and those who have failed to cross the moral-legal Rubicon. For all its virtues, Naya Pakistan’s well-ordered moral universe comes at the expense of the independence of the country’s institutions, the smooth functioning of our political parties, and public faith in a deeply flawed system of justice and investigation.

Second, the PTI’s need to deliver on transformational social and economic change has dragged up the federalist question. Without the political jurisdiction to reform many of the areas it promised, the Prime Minister needs to be backstopped by the provinces. Attempts to sacrifice provincial autonomy at the altar of centralized power will stoke center-periphery tensions and damage the logic of participatory democracy that successive administrations have worked hard to implement.

Third, the party’s razor-thin majority at the Centre and in Punjab means that a time may come when frustration with the inefficiency of democracy may bubble over, with leaders falling back on populist dog-whistles. This will be especially likely when the public is required to stomach a difficult set of reforms, including higher taxes and reduced government spending.

When that happens, the party must temper the can do-ism of its container politics with parliamentary consultation, reconciliation, negotiation and compromise. And its supporters, in turn, must accept that the sine qua non of a healthy democracy is diversity of opinion.

The message for the Prime Minister is that in democracies, setbacks are inevitable and victories partial. This is what makes the smooth functioning of our built-in screening devices – parliament, oversight committees, political parties, and a free and independent media and civil society – utterly vital. The role of the Opposition, to peer-review critical legislation, and keep checks on the centralization of power or the suspension of fundamental rights, is more important than ever.Some of the above will fall outside the lines of least resistance. But protecting the country and its guardrails are worth it.

A version of this article appeared in The News on 30-01-2019.