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July 5, 2018

Questions without answers


July 5, 2018

While the run-up to the 2018 elections has been less colourful or cheerful – and decidedly more bizarre, with stories of ‘sajdas’ and decisions made on the basis of spiritual knowledge doing the rounds – than the previous election campaigns, there is one aspect to it which is of particular importance.

It is perhaps for the first time that the people have begun directly asking candidates questions and demanding answers. The actions of groups such as the Lahore-based Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement, which mainly consists of young people and students, have been instrumental in this. It is also encouraging other likeminded forces to put together such organisations in other places. There should be nothing unusual about asking candidates questions. In many democratic countries, it is a tradition that candidates of both the winning and losing parties visit their constituencies on a regular basis and interact with people. Our politicians apparently see themselves as being above this.

In Dera Ghazi Khan, Sardar Jamal Leghari, was bombarded with questions about why he failed to visit his home area in the last five years or resolve its multiple problems. He insisted that as the chief of the Leghari tribe he should not be questioned, and left without answering the queries hurled at him by obviously angry people. This was an unfortunate response from an educated politician. But clearly, traditions and notions of supremacy come before the basic principles of democracy.

In Lahore, Khawaja Saad Rafique resorted to sarcasm when a student asked him about the availability of safe drinking water for people. He insisted that all mobile phones at the corner meeting be switched off and ordered his workers to give the young man a glass of water. This is simply a way to insult people rather than address the genuine concerns.

There are other significant signs of growing restlessness among the people. Bilawal Bhutto’s cavalcade and his own vehicle were pelted with stones by angry protesters in Lyari. The protesters carried blank pictures to demonstrate their distress over the failure to provide them with water during the five years of the PPP government in Sindh. To his credit, Bilawal, who initially tried to talk to the people, drove away to deliver speeches in other areas of the locality – traditionally a PPP stronghold. He then returned to the troubled area but was immediately pelted with stones once again. His courage is commendable as he did not make an escape from the hostile crowd, even though his security cover, as is the case with the PML-N leaders, has been withdrawn. Regardless, Bilawal will need to come up with answers. The best solution will be to find the means to deliver what the people need.

We have seen similar incidents in other places as well. What is encouraging is that the voters have decided that it is time their elected representatives answered some questions. In Sindh, Khursheed Shah, the opposition leader in the National Assembly for the past five years, was asked about the lack of development in his native town in Sindh. Although he remained polite, he could not offer any answers. Others have acted no differently. Some appeared to have been genuinely startled when the questions were put to them. In some other places, keeping with the patterns set in what is still a feudal society, people who gathered at the meetings did not ask any questions.

But we can see a change in the peoples’ mood; a change in their understanding of what democracy is about and what it should be achieving. They have realised that the entire process is not simply about casting votes and then waiting for results. They have learnt that the people they elect should be doing more than simply making promises and then not visiting the areas, sometimes quite literally, for years. This is an important development. It shows that if we are somehow able to allow democracy to evolve sufficiently, it may be able to correct the many flaws, which currently exist within our system.

The process of electoral politics in itself educates people and helps them discover that they have a voice. As the questions will get more vociferous, politicians will at one point or the other acknowledge that they can no longer get away by simply evading the questions or attempting to deride those who ask them. This could and should result in the emergence of new patterns of thinking and force parties to correct themselves and select candidates not just because they are rated as ‘electables’ on the basis of their ties with a clan or power, but because they are popular with people and will be able to win votes by meeting the needs of the people.

Parties themselves will obviously need to reform their structures in order to put in place a system that is able to deliver governance to the people. These parties will have to actually commit themselves to the task of running the country and its affairs at every tier rather than engaging in self-aggrandisement. With this, the habit of voting on the basis of tradition or support for spiritual or feudal leaders may also begin to vanish.

But for all this to happen, we need to give democracy a chance. We need to allow it to run year after year and decade after decade, with regular transitions taking place. When there is an intervention from the outside, the process of achieving real change halts. This is what has happened during the last 70 years of Pakistan’s existence. It is easy to criticise democracy, corruption and the inability of governments to deliver. But these issues can improve only through democracy itself and by granting people a larger portion of power.

Independent groups set up to educate voters and mobilise students can play an important role in this; so can groups running social media and media outlets. But even without their interventions, it is obvious that people, whether literate or illiterate, privileged or underprivileged, are becoming more and more aware of what their representatives should be offering to them.

In Karachi, a young man posted a short video on social media asking PTI MNA Dr Arif Alvi, regarded as one of the better candidates of the party, about where he was for the last five years and why has he failed to do anything substantial in his constituency, which includes simply talking to people and listening to their grievances.

While every problem cannot, of course, immediately be resolved, simply hearing out people offers them some solace. This is the reason why MPAs in Britain and other nations regularly conduct clinics where constituents can meet them or employ staff to answer letters, indicating that they are at least listening to the people in their constituencies, even if they cannot meet their demands.

From all that is happening, lessons need to be learnt. It is far from certain that this will happen in the coming elections. There are too many indicators that this particular exercise may be focused on purposes other than those of the people. But regardless of which party eventually assumes power, we hope it will have the good sense to at least attempt to address the real problems of the country, rather than engage in games of power or resort merely to gimmicks with no intention of fulfilling the promises they make in their speeches and manifestos.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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