Now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back
There is little doubt that if true democracy is an island in the middle of an ocean, then its shoreline is starting to appear on the horizon for Pakistan. It has been a long, choppy sail ride. And needless to say a great distance still remains to be covered. But in a democratic transfer of power from PPP to PML-N, and in the undisrupted completion of PPP’s five-year term – the first of its kind – in 2013, we witnessed a necessary departure from the norm. The norm, of course, has remained a horror fest of military coups, political assassinations/executions and presidential interventions, among other travesties; a reality that has long kept the country flailing in the swallowing morass of unyielding authoritarianism and political obscurantism in matters of governance.
That things finally seem to be moving in the right direction is good news. But in a universe of yin and yang, no good news comes alone without its notorious other half: bad news. So what’s the bad news? Well, for one, it appears that this shift in direction seems to have little to do with strong governance as one would like to imagine. While it consoles the heart to think of our elected officials as dapper government execs in their suit and tie regalia signing bills into law while passionately debating civil reform, the reality remains far less appetising. One need only catch the national assembly in session for a cruel reminder.
The government’s incompetence and lack of initiative in matters of planning and execution, its flaky confidence in its own ability to lead and deliver and its subsequent outsourcing of responsibilities to the military and judiciary is what nourishes the exogenous elements which thrive in administrative incompetence
The truth is that behind this glossy sheen of our recently discovered democracy lies the putrid smut of the same old order where policies are conceived not in the high chambers of civilian institutions, but are shoved down as dicta from the higher enclaves of men in brass medals and khakis. In other words, the army continues to call the shots in most matters of state policy. Granted the army’s role has of late become less overt and more behind-the-scenes, but that it remains on top of the food chain remains a matter of fact. For proponents of liberal democracy, those who believe civilian institutions and executive writ must hold the greatest sway in the affairs of the state, this is quite discouraging. Representative democracy, they wail, is the reflection of the will of people through state mandate. It is the elected polity that takes this will of the people and translates it into policy and action. Not the army or the judiciary. Yet, increasingly we are seeing more of the latter than the former. Both the army and the judiciary are expanding their spheres of influence, on occasion trespassing overtly into the realm of the executive.
While this discouraging status quo points to the impermeability of certain forces in the country, one can’t entirely lay the blame on such forces alone. The government’s incompetence and lack of initiative in matters of planning and execution, its flaky confidence in its own ability to lead and deliver and its subsequent outsourcing of responsibilities to the military and judiciary is what nourishes the exogenous elements which thrive in administrative incompetence.
We see this reality richly manifested all around us. So it is that each time a military court performs a hanging or delivers a fatal verdict, or when a military operation uncovers a crime ring connected in some serpentine way to an elected official/politician, or when a judicial commission sets upon the task of determining voter-fraud and legitimacy of a previously held parliamentary elections, or worse still, when judges take matters in their own hands and put limits on parliament’s right to repeal or amend the constitution’s salient features, what becomes increasingly obvious is that we have a weak government eager to cede command and control to others while it indolently grazes along in the sidelines. When law-enforcement is weak and ineffective, when policymakers are semi-literate and greedy, and when civil institutions tasked to deliver accountability are in and of themselves suspect to say the least, then other powers will, of necessity, swoop in to fill in the bureaucratic vacuum.
To examine this dismal state of governance then is to take a guided tour in the graveyard of administrative lapses. Take the issue of tax collection. According to the recent RAFTAAR’s tax report only 0.3 per cent of our population files income tax returns. Our tax-to-GDP ratio is embarrassing. Will this be outsourced to the military as well? Will men in military fatigues and combat boots now go door to door to remind credulous folks of their tax obligations? Will they also be tasked to check electric-metre readings while they’re at it, since competence and WAPDA remain perennially parted?
And while we pat ourselves on the back for finally taking the war to the extremists, was it not this government’s constant dilly-dallying and insistence on negotiation with militant murderers which delayed matters to the point where Zarb-e-Azb became an existential necessity?
Let’s take another matter of poor governance: Madrassa reforms. Recently Nawaz Sharif and Interior Minister Hassan Nisar met with religious clergy to discuss this. While important issues of religious curriculum, madrassa registration and funding audits were brought up, yet we know all too well that these concerns have remained talking points for the most part – a ploy to placate those clamouring for reforms – as is with most of the promises to have accompanied the NAP. And while we pat ourselves on the back for finally taking the war to the extremists, was it not this government’s constant dilly-dallying and insistence on negotiation with militant murderers which delayed matters to the point where Zarb-e-Azb became an existential necessity?
When incidents like the killing of a key witness in the Sabeen Mahmud murder case occur with terrifying regularity, when child-porn rings operating right under the nose of the local police department are exposed after years of undisrupted operation, and when journalists are routinely picked off for the crime of uncovering truths opposed to the state, then we know it’s our government, not the senator in Arkansas, to blame. The same government that hobbles and stumbles in blindfolds as it helplessly takes the lead from men in military regalia that blaze the trail.
So, yes, while we may have covered some ground in the last year or so, let’s not delude ourselves into embracing some feel-good fiction of how we have become democratic. True democracy is the autonomy and empowerment of the individual. Not some namby-pamby charade designed by the elite to stay in power through suppressed constituencies that they control and satanic protocols that they conceive.
For us, true realisation of democracy and good administration will come through a strong local government system, with a greater number of provinces — created along administrative lines – to achieve desired administrative efficiencies and accountability, the sort of accountability which runs down to the municipal level and represents a system where ultimately the individual — whether he be blind, indigent or crippled – and not some self-entitled overlord, is made the greatest stakeholder of the land.