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(First published on January 05, 2019)

Democracy in Pakistan is under threat. And this threat emanates from within. The two major parties, PML-N and PPP, think that when they are not in power there is no democracy in the country. And when they are, they are not allowed to function. But that is not where the threat stems from. It comes from their lack of homework, ineptness, pride in own shortcomings and mediocrity. They just return your car keys after ten years of use and you can see how badly broken the car (federal government in this case) is. We need to take stock and we need to do it now. Even though your head hurts thinking about what this country had to endure you will have to take stock and while taking stock you need to set all your biases aside for a minute. There is no harm in trying.

If you are a believer in democracy, you need to look back and ask yourself how many times you had to defend the then rulers — against judiciary, against media criticism, memogate, against the fallout of the Model Town tragedy, lack of governance, accusations of wrong priorities, when Modi came to town without any due procedure, when Jindal was rushed to Murree against better judgment, when contents of a confidential apex meeting were allegedly leaked to a newspaper and when Panama Papers story broke. This is by no means a comprehensive list. So, democracy is a damsel in distress and you are the knight in the shining armour?

Go back to the list and consider what these allegations that you had to fight were about. The accusation of intransigence, ineptness, conspiracy to undermine own state for another, broad daylight mass murders, inability to deliver or prioritise, fraternising with the enemy, compromising privileged information just to divert attention from own flaws and corruption involving assets beyond means. But this is not like you. You did it, one comprise at a time. For the greater good, for democracy.

But is it not supposed to be the other way round? You cast your vote on the election day, you pay your taxes, fulfil your civic duty and then democracy takes care of you. You individually and not you, the abstract teeming masses. Did it?

Now go back a few more years. During Pervez Musharraf’s time. The man ruled the country for almost nine years. His last year in power was controversial and gave birth to a cottage industry of defenders. But before that how many times were you asked to defend him? Not many. There were no mega scandals, no major accusations and something to show for. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the real threat to democracy. In just a decade, the two major parties have made a dictator look better in comparison. And this threat is compounded by the global atmospherics characterised by the retreat of democracy and emergence of strongmen. You and I might have derived our outlook on democracy from works of Tocqueville and John Stewart Mill, but the common man on the street doesn’t care. To him either you are capable of delivering or you are not.

Another issue with the quality of democracy in the country is of inertia. Most parties are hardly more than cults of personalities and there is no mechanism to replace the man at the Centre. Consider this. When Benazir Bhutto first became the PM, she was 35 years of age and her husband, Asif Zardari, 33. When Nawaz Sharif became PM he was 41. And now in their sixties, they still remain the only show in town. Even in dynasties, power is handed over to the next generation. But not here. Not until the older generation reshapes the next in its own image. And then family feuds make way for intrigues. Murtaza Bhutto is murdered, Model Town debacle takes place. And you are supposed to shrug, call it business as usual and move on.

Meanwhile, if someone from within the rank and file of the party captivates the people’s imagination he or she should take his/her pride and walk away. Otherwise your own leadership would come at you like sharks or dismantle your integrity and appeal brick by brick and confine you to oblivion. Sounds familiar? You have seen this film play before your eyes time and again with a new protagonist each time, a tragic hero transformed into a villain. And you are programmed not to even be offended when a good, capable man or a woman is asked to choose between a life of mediocre servitude or political death. The top is always crowded but there is always room at the bottom. Come join in.

So, you can’t ask why these rulers do not deliver; how they get richer every time you check; how the country gets poorer every time you look. What do they have to show for? Every progress, every breakthrough, every development they claimed they have made is make believe and needs to be qualified. More work for you. More praises for them. If you still don’t get the point perhaps this excerpt from Punishment of Khipil by George Meredith will help you understand it better: “There was once a farm servant that, having neglected in the seed-time to sow, took to singing the richness of his soil when it was harvest, in proof of which he displayed the abundance of weeds that coloured the land everywhere”.

When after the tragic demise of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari assumed the leadership of his party it was his own pledge that he would only lead it till the time Bilawal is grownup. When he grew up it was supposed to be a simple transition. From father to son. Not rocket science. A simple transition. But that meant Bilawal’s paternal aunt would cease to wield influence in the party and would have to vacate Benazir’s electoral seat. So it did not happen. Since it is a private concern, it is not my place to say how things should be. The purpose is to highlight what ails the political parties you think are champions of democracy. Likewise, the competition between the house of Nawaz and the house of Shehbaz brought down the PML-N. Our peers claim that the TLP’s Faizabad sit-in was orchestrated by the forces that be. But nobody seems to mind how its procession travelled from Lahore, across Punjab, across Rawalpindi and reached Faizabad in the first place and who was ruling Punjab back then.

If by democracy you mean rule of two royal families then there is that too. However if by democracy you mean people’s rule then there is no greater threat to the latter than thorough inadequacy, ineptness and charades of the former. It is a learned lesson. How many times would it take to sink in?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 5th, 2019.

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