Transitioning into nowhere
I wrote about Singapore in my previous column and described its peculiar stability and staggering achievements, despite the amalgam of contradictions that combine to make up its whole.
So if we were to follow the same trajectory, make the same decisions, build a similar system, you would imagine that eventually that formula would work for us as well and deliver the same results? Sounds exciting – except, a neat application of the Singapore model is just not possible in Pakistan.
No, I’m not about to go on and contradict what I stated and implied in my previous piece; there is a lot we could improve and achieve by simply mimicking what Singapore has done in the realms of economic planning, public spending, education, health, infrastructure, technology and foreign affairs. But could we impersonate its style of governance and get away with building a quasi-democracy? I don’t think so and here’s why: Singapore is a small island city state, with a population of roughly 5.5 million inhabitants, approximately 70 percent of whom are Chinese Buddhists and who speak either of two main languages – Mandarin and Malay – at home, with English being preferred by all as the primary language of communication in all spheres of life. The minority religions are Christianity, Islam and Taoism, with roughly 20 percent of the populace declaring that it has no religious affiliation. With religion, language and ethnic contradictions out the window, it’s easy to introduce a quasi-democratic model and curb dissent with a zero tolerance policy on challenges to the writ of the state.
Now consider Pakistan. There can be no comparison on the population front of course as there is no similarity of size. And from that point onwards it’s a downward slide into chaos. Pick any one of the following: religion, ethnicity, sectarian affiliation and language, and all you have is the din of competing beliefs and interests, merging into a cacophony of disagreement. We don’t have ‘one religion’, for example, as much as we would like to gloss over the fact and declare ourselves to be a Muslim state. Because in 70 years and prior to it, there was never any agreement on what brand of Islam would hold sway with maximum acceptance in the Subcontinent.
If Sunni, then Barelvi or Deobandi? If not Sunni then Shia? And say you had that figured out, what about Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi and Pakhtun? A sharing of power you would say but how, when each has a world view diametrically opposed to that of the others? And take a magnifying glass and peer closely into each ethnic group. With the exception of Sindh, where despite linguistic and ethnic differences the populace is able to articulate its political interests under a Sindhi identity, is there any such singularity and unison in the other provinces? Are the Baloch united? Are the Pakhtun a homogenous cultural group? Do the Seraiki agree Punjab ought to be one contiguous unit? And all that difference is exacerbated by the multi-lingual nature of our polity. Because language is the medium through which difference is articulated, through which identities manifest themselves and declare their independence, even before they declare their superiority.
So how do we go about applying the Singapore model to the plethora of difference described above? Short of dialogue and engagement, the only final solution appears to be force. Well that’s something that has been tried and tested with disastrous results in Balochistan: the attempt to deal with a political problem as if it were a law and order situation. Which brings me to the unpopular conclusion: the only way forward for Pakistan is the firm establishment of a multi-party democracy. Because differences can only be resolved through dialogue and engagement and yes when a broad consensus is achieved, only then may rules and regulations be enforced.
However, the last decade has been bad for democracy. The only thing that the democratic system has achieved is the procedural transition from one government to the next. It appears that will happen in 2018 as well. All political parties are unanimous in the holding of the next general elections. But that’s where the unity of thought and purpose ends. Conceptually we are yet to achieve the transition to a democratic state. And that’s because the main actors, the political parties, are out to sabotage the system again – a time tested modus operandi, which may have become a force of habit.
There are similarities in what is going on at the moment with what happened in the last year of the PPP government. A prime minister has again been chucked out of office. There is political limbo as the ruling party struggles to stay afloat just as long as the next elections. And in the meanwhile every party in the opposition appears to think that if it moves in for the kill now, chips in all it can to ensure the dismemberment of the ruling party, that will somehow ensure its victory in the next general elections. In five years, the seismic shift in politics that is apparent, therefore, is that negative engagement – the tarnishing of political opponents’ public image, the disruption of the parliamentary process and smug compromises with the establishment – is the way to political power. It has become the new modus vivendi for democratic politics in Pakistan.
The problem is that this cycle appears set to continue. While the jury is out on who will emerge victorious in the next general elections – or what coalition is likely should there be no clear winner – the routine of democratic consensus building is likely to be sabotaged again and in similar fashion, owing to the dangerous precedent set in the last five years. Expect more dharnas, more mud-slinging, more disengagement from parliament and fewer laws and regulations. And if this happens – with the consequent failure to deliver success on the economic front also likely – expect more civilian space being conceded to the establishment.
And in the meanwhile there’s another casualty the democratic arrangement has suffered owing to the brand of politics practised by the opposition in the last five years: the erosion of the writ of the state. The recent sit-in by a religious group in Islamabad provides the painful evidence of this sad fact. The complete insecurity and weakness of resolve that the government has been forced to demonstrate – in fear of a possible PR crisis that could well be the final nail in the coffin of the PML-N’s political career – has ominous connotations for future governments. Religion, it is now established, can be used as a conversation ender, which no government can challenge unless it is prepared to use force. The only alternative is to concede space.
For nascent religious groups, splinter factions of established religious parties and proscribed organisations, on the contrary, this is a victorious moment. They know now that they can paralyse the government and daily life at the drop of their hats, by marching to the capital, destroying property and issuing threats and warnings. They also know that they will now have more avenues available for entering mainstream politics as political parties seek to enter into political arrangements with them. Be afraid.
The writer is a freelance columnist.