A nation of place-hunters

December 19,2017

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Another tumultuous week in our blighted land passes, with the rupee taking a dive and with some further adjustments to our hodgepodge political landscape of place-hunters.

A balancing act – some allege – has been enacted by the apex court, as it proceeded to vanquish the political career of one key political figure, even as it saved that of two others. Both Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif are out of the dock and, if it is part of a larger plan, then we can well imagine how the contours of a new political arrangement will take shape in the aftermath of the 2018 general elections. With the PML-N clearly at one sharp end of the political divide, the entire congress of place-hunters is now champing at the bit as they visualise the doors to political office within their grasp. It is no surprise, then, that marriages of convenience are being announced by all and sundry, day in and day out.

The PPP has thrown its lot with anyone that may want to discredit the ruling party, and its supremo, Asif Ali Zardari, was recently seen cosying up to the visiting dharna specialist, Tahirul Qadri. Another sit-in has been announced for the month of January, the final new year present for the beleaguered government’s last year in office it seems, and sure enough the PTI, the dormant PML-Q and others soon rushed to express solidarity with Qadri - -a veritable Axis of Chaos in the making. The MQM, in similar vein, is also willing to jump on any bandwagon that takes pot-shots and hurls rotten eggs at the PML-N. Another cobweb-ridden alliance, the MMA, has crept out of the attic of our chequered past to reunite in the hopes of sharing the spoils of political office, particularly as its members have all been dealt with surprise blows from nascent religious outfits on the lunatic fringe of the radical right.

While a decision will finally be taken on the delimitation of constituencies – a welcome relief as we can expect a more representative electoral roll for 2018 – the place-hunters will remain the same, except possibly with the addition of Tahirul Qadri’s outfit and the TLYR and MML. Notice I keep using the term ‘place-hunters’. Not just because it has a nice ring to it but because it has particular political relevance to Pakistan. It is a term used by John Stuart Mill in his essay, ‘Under what social conditions representative government is inapplicable’ – a short, brilliant and insightful work of political philosophy which I urge you to read in its entirety to understand Mill’s message and lesson on how representative government may or may not succeed.

To summarise and explain the point, let us consider what Mill posits. In his analysis of the types of nations that organically adapt to and create conditions amenable for the success of representative government, he identifies two types: one are those whose sole aim is the desire to exercise power over others, while the other are those who are only disinclined to have power exercised over them.

Here is how Mill describes the people of the former kind and the state of government they may naturally attain to: “An average individual among them prefers the chance, however distant or improbable, of wielding some share of power over his fellow-citizens, above the certainty, to himself and others, of having no unnecessary power exercised over them. These are the elements of a people of place-hunters; in whom the course of politics is mainly determined by place-hunting; where equality alone is cared for but not liberty; where the contests of political parties are but struggles to decide whether the power of meddling in everything shall belong to one class or another, perhaps merely to one knot of public men or another; where the idea entertained of democracy is merely that of opening offices to the competition of all instead of a few…”.

At an earlier point he says “When a people have no sufficient value for, and attachment to, a representative constitution, they have next to no chance of retaining it”. And that “if the executive is weak, the country is distracted by mere struggles for place”.

Mill portends chaos, revolution and constant civil war accompanied by illegal violence in states where the be-all and end-all of governance and political office is place-hunting. I can visualise the grins on the faces of those who repeatedly make the case of upending democracy and reverting to some authoritarian or oligarchic solution to our problems of state. But that would be the result of an insufficient if not conveniently biased understanding of Mill’s political thesis – for his argument on the state of a particular kind of nation, encompasses every section of its society. Not just the political class that may fill the houses of parliament, not just the executive, but also the judiciary and the military.

While he cites conditions of a primitive social state, one not civilised enough to learn the basic lessons of obedience, or one at a primitive stage of development – where a “savage independence” precludes the exercise of any “improving restraint” through the agency of representative government – he concludes that any political arrangement, any “representative assembly” drawn from among such a nation “would simply reflect their own turbulent insubordination”.

And that makes for a classic description of our country, where in the last five years every modicum of decent restraint, political maturity, good governance and civil obedience has been deliberately discarded for the sake of unbridled place-hunting. And it is not just the ruling party – though its supporters may argue that it has borne the brunt of the organised chaos noted above – or the opposition alone, that may take the blame for this state of disarray. It must be shared equally by the military, the judiciary and our agencies of spooks in service. So what is the alternative you ask? Mill addresses the idea of governance by One or a Few. He contends that where the organisation of a society is akin to that of tribes, perhaps a despotic military ruler or some “conjurer regarded as possessing miraculous power” may provide the answer. But then goes on to remind us that “from the general weaknesses of the people or of the state of civilization, the One and his counsellors, or the Few, are not likely to be habitually exempt”.

For now, with all the upheavals on the national political, economic and governance fronts we have endured in the last five years – not to mention the jiggery-pokery by this country’s power brokers – all the place-hunters are now perhaps organised in the geometrical arrangement where they were meant to be. Which leaves us, the voting public, with little more than a Hobson’s choice of either going to the polls or rejecting the ballot altogether.

Regardless of the outcome, the stage is set for more of the same as our bands of place-hunters refuse to learn any lessons offered by our political history. Or perhaps this telos is only the logical conclusion of the accumulation of our political history. As Mill contends: “because the work of some one period has been so done, as to bar the needful work of the ages following”.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: kmushirhotmail.com

Twitter: kmushir


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