Consider, if you will, a scenario: in light of the Panama leaks and the growing chorus demanding that he step down, his eminence, leader of the unfree world, third-time prime minister, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, calls it a day.
A humbled man, the PM then proceeds to solemnly deliver what turns out to be his final address to the nation: he starts by lamenting his people for having him step down based on a report that merely made mention of his progeny (savvy entrepreneurs, if Sharif is to be believed). Surrendering, briefly, to his emotions, the grudging prime minister then lashes out at all the unreliable ingrates who first voted for him en masse, only to later chant ‘Go Nawaz Go’ slogans and demand his resignation. And with this, he exits the podium – for the final time.
Ruckus ensues. News channels scramble for primetime hits; analysts and pundits offer sage counsel; a team of aviation experts is assembled to safely return Imran Khan – buoyed to stratospheric heights following said development – to the ground. A caretaker government is formed, elections held, and someone from the PML-N (Sharif Junior?) most likely ascends to power. Soon enough a twin status quo emerges. Would anything change?
Let’s be honest: Pakistan’s greatest problem is not the wealth acquired, legally or illegally, by the man who is leading the country for the third time. The problem is why that man is leading to begin with. And this is where it gets more complicated. If Nawaz had acquired power on the wings of a powerful crime syndicate, it would be a different matter altogether.
As it stands today, Nawaz Sharif is, by an incredibly strong mandate, the chosen leader of the people. This has been proven again and again. By-elections in electorally suspect constituencies have consistently yielded the same undeniable truth: Pakistanis, significant numbers of them, will vote Nawaz any given day. Nawaz, therefore, is not the problem, the electorate is.
This opens the door to a more fundamental question: is democracy always viable across the board? Many people view the deliverances of democracy as something akin to the inevitable equilibrium price in standard neoclassical economic models (at least in theory). That given enough time, the system will sort itself out and the best solution will emerge. Let democracy trundle along the rails and disembark shortly on destination utopia. Here’s the ground reality: many Pakistanis vote on basis of association – ethnic, caste, religious etc.
Then there is the culture of patronage. If you’re a peasant, or a petty labourer, you dare not diverge from the local patron. Vote for him and ye’ shall survive. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, as the PML-Q and PPP would know all too well. But it’s rarely ever been policies that have informed the average voter decision. After all, the electorate isn’t deliberating Zardari’s views on laissez-faire economics or Nawaz’s position on the ethics of stem cell research.
So when we demand that a leader step down, what we shouldn’t expect is a Pakistani version of Justin Trudeau – that real-life version of Disney’s Prince Eric, who, when he’s not busy running his country, can be seen pulling off ‘peacock poses’ before the camera, or dancing to Punjabi bhangra, or better yet, rattling of the merits of Quantum Computing in press conferences.
What we should expect to see, unflatteringly, is a bit of the same old order. After all, when Zia died, people celebrated. Who replaced him? A woman who would set Pakistan back in more than one way. It’s not enough to say she was better than Zia, that’s setting the bar near ground level. When BB was sacked, it was Nawaz who replaced her – and we know how that worked out. When Musharraf resigned, who replaced him? Asif Zardari. Allow yourself to briefly shudder. If you still fail to see the pattern here, you just might have bigger problems to deal with.
The solution is not to give up on democracy, or let corrupt leaders off the hook. But it is important to understand that democracy without its compliments – meritocracy, rule of law, literacy – is insufficient; a lesson we should have learnt by now. What we should be focusing on is how to make barriers to entry into politics and the executive and legislative branches more merit based. How to reclaim the land from powerful dynasties who view it as their personal real-estate; after all, dynasties the world over are weakening – Jeb Bush and Rahul Gandhi stand testament to that.
Not allowing another generation of Pakistanis to kneel before another Sharif or Bhutto – that should be the focus. All these are structural changes, mindset changes, and by their very definition, dank and unglamorous. But the choice is simple: persistent and penetrating change over the long term, or adrenalin pumping histrionics in the short.
Another element missing in Pakistan is robust opposition. When Bilawal Bhutto – he the son of Asif Zardari (a man who’d make Al Capone twitch in his grave) – urges Sharif to resign based on a money-laundering scandal, the kettle has never looked more back. When Khan demands the same, the contradiction is deafening considering people in his own party have been accused (and even confessed) of the same. Besides, given his desperation at the moment, Khan may even use the imminent extinction of the white Rhinoceros as a legitimate symptom of Nawaz’s misgovernance.
This is not a robust opposition, this is an opportunistic opposition – playing on politics, not principle. And the army isn’t helping matters either, making dazzling displays of accountability at a point magically coincident with the Panama scandal. The scent of opportunism is heavy here – a PR makeover strategy which makes the civvies look bad all over again. We know where this path can lead to; best not to entertain.
Finally, there is the fundamental issue of morality itself. Let’s face it: amassing private wealth is a fringe concern in the mainstream Pakistani moral calculus. ‘Haram’ actions – for instance consuming alcohol, or speaking out against the blasphemy law etc – are deemed far more problematic offences. People have short memories when it comes to get-rich-quick schemes. They even forgave Zardari.
Just like most Americans are unfazed by premarital promiscuity, this being part of their open society, many Pakistanis have grown up giving the odd bribe to the traffic constable or getting Nadra to ‘expedite’ matters for them – doesn’t give them much cause for concern, as it would to people in more scrupulous societies. To this end, Nawaz’s resignation on purely moral grounds would have to coincide with a magical inversion of the Pakistani moral pyramid.
In the end, if Nawaz resigns, if only to be the first domino to fall by the long awaited finger-flick of justice, well Hallelujah. Might be a good precedent. Just don’t expect miracles. Fresh flowers have rarely ever bloomed out of mud piles.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in the US.