The general elections of 1985 were the first that I can remember. A primary school student, I stayed up all night glued to the television screen. Leading newspapers in those days used to publish the extensive list of candidates in each constituency with ample space to record the final results. The winner’s name, the total votes cast, and the margin of victory. My father had shown me how it all worked. So I stayed up all night writing down the results. I barely knew who was who. The announcers and the commentators kept announcing names and I took them down. By morning the list was complete. My father’s pleasure was an added bonus. The real treat was the experience itself. Children often find the idea of staying up all night enjoyable. But to witness the galaxy of stars gathered on one screen to help pass time until results started pouring in was an ethereal experience. I was hooked. This romance would take me to the long winding road of political journalism.
When you have spent so much time following and studying politics you inevitably develop an internal compass. As the political polarisation in the country reaches breaking point and one by one we lose friends on the other side of the divide to the fog of war, I feel obliged to revisit these core values. The purpose is to see if my position on things has shifted. As you go through these lines kindly bear in mind that processes are more important than individuals. Institution building is a process. Individuals who head these institutions come and go but what matters is the incremental change that may one day take us to the true north. Also bear in mind that there is no shortcut to progress. We have often squandered away decades of meaningful progress to bring about an overnight change. The overnight change is a mirage. No one has a magic wand. With some deceptive initial progress, every shortcut invariably leads you to the edge of a precipice. The story of political evolution will take several generations and mountain loads of patience to deliver substantial results. With these initial thoughts in mind let us dive into what I believe represents the core set of my principles.
1) Democracy is Pakistan’s destiny. For a country that has spent half of its independent life under dictatorship, this may sound peculiarly odd but it is not. History bears testimony to the fact that regardless of their good intentions, dictators left behind a weaker federation. The fall of East Pakistan, religious radicalisation as a result of the Afghan jihad, and two decades of the painful fight against terrorism all make it clear. And then remember, something always brings us back to democracy.
2) Pakistan’s founding fathers and the framers of the 1973 Constitution were right. Federalism and parliamentary democracy are best suited for a country as diverse as ours. That is why rulers after rulers have found it so difficult to do away with the 1973 Constitution. Does that mean everything is hunky-dory? Far from it. The system has kinks which only time can remove.
3) Women’s rights are fundamental human rights. Given the abuse women have endured in this society due to cultural and societal bottlenecks, the state and society should offer them special leeway. The country cannot abandon one-half of its population. It will have to offer it a conducive environment to catch up in progress.
4) The Constitution of Pakistan offers guarantees for the protection of minorities. The members of the minority communities should enjoy equal rights to the level that one day they stop feeling like a minority.
5) Institution building is a tough and time-taking process. Constant pressure as a result of the political tug of war in the country can make institutions ungovernable. It is imperative to keep the political temperature within manageable limits.
6) With our chequered history, it is critical that each elected legislative assembly completes its term. Before General Musharraf’s tenure, this was unheard of. But since then all assemblies have completed their term. This positive trend should continue unabated.
7) No prime minister in the country’s history has served a full five-year term in office. The sooner this curse is broken the better it is. Who breaks it does not matter.
8) Without internal democracy and regular elections political parties can hardly call themselves democratic. The election commission and lawmakers can come up with reforms but the real qualitative change can only come from within. These parties will need strong constitutions, adherence to term limits, regular elections, strong think tanks, and solid money management codes.
9) No party can be about one man or one dynasty. Invariably so. When parties begin the transition to a more inclusive democracy the existing leadership or dynasties could serve as the starting point but the anti-nepotism laws and term limits ought to ensure that change eventually comes. These parties also need robust internal dispute resolution mechanisms.
10) Without empowered and functioning local governments as the third tier of power neither democracy nor federalism is complete. Apart from that, I am not a big fan of creating new provinces. At best the provincial legislatures ought to be bicameral like at the centre.
11) Media freedom is critical. The infighting among media group owners weakens their collective interest. Media groups and the state should be able to work in tandem. How an economy like ours can sustain 50 news channels is beyond me.
12) Election integrity is of utmost importance. Political parties are notorious for rejecting results when they lose in the general election. Take their claims with a pinch of salt.
13) The establishment (read permanent institutions) should have no role in politics. Only 13 years ago the country was controlled by a military ruler. Denial is pointless. The role of the security establishment got prolonged because of the War on Terror. If the democratic process continues this role will gradually fade away. Attacking institutions that are fighting elements who are after your blood is not just counterintuitive, it is stupid.
14) Judicial overreach invariably creates challenges for the state. But an independent judiciary is crucial for the country’s future. Trichotomy of power must be upheld.
15) Politics and religion should be kept apart because when they mingle it harms both.
16) Peace with neighbouring countries is essential.
17) Without serious efforts to establish an open society a young nation like ours cannot go too far.
18) Democracy is an inclusive enterprise. As long as the elites keep resisting the emergence of new parties, newcomers will flock to places that are out of the elite’s control: the establishment and the clergy.
19) Violence begets violence. There should be zero tolerance for violent non-state actors.
20) It’s the economy stupid.
You have read these principles. Now I invite you to go through my work during the past decade and point out where I have deviated from any of these principles. May I also ask why other pro-democracy moderates have changed their position after the 2018 election?