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Tuesday October 26, 2021

Deceptive catchphrases

October 14, 2021

Before coming to power, the ruling party had vowed to democratise society and strengthen democratic values. It had also promised to bolster the economic wellbeing of society, uplift the population from the depth of social inequalities such as extreme poverty, and ensure access to education, improved healthcare and timely delivery of justice. A closer look at some of these key issues shows that the status quo on all of these fronts is stronger than ever and, in many cases, has been further exacerbated.

Public offices are full to the brim with the elite – landlords, powerful industrialists and other individuals with strong influence. It seems that the ruling party has become a sanctuary for this close-knit league of authoritarians, who happen to be part of almost every government setup (whether political, military rule or semi-authoritarian), to manage what seems to be the further erosion of political institutions and to protect their own vested interests.

The presence of these people in public/ministerial offices has caused rising levels of conflicts of interest and imbued entrenched behaviour. There is clear evidence over the past three years that such arrangements are highly problematic. However, the prime minister has failed on his promises of rooting out such nepotism and brushed these issues under the carpet. The governance ramifications of this wilful neglect are proving to be catastrophic.

It appears that some non-democratic forces have also strengthened their footing within government spheres much more strongly than ever in the history of this country. This is certainly not what the people were expecting or hoping for. It is political discourse and the democratisation of society that help build stronger institutions, thus leading to economically strong welfare societies. The people were hoping for a more democratic and fairer Pakistan. Unfortunately, over the past three years or so, the elite have appeared to increasingly strengthen their place in power circles. All in all, the current government has so far benefitted only the powerful, and the so called ‘change’ has happened only in favour of the ruling elite rather than in the interest of the people of Pakistan.

The task of putting the falling economy back on track, in the midst of the current pandemic, is proving to be a real uphill struggle for the government. Our education system is worthless and has produced inequalities on a scale that would require decades to fix. It continues to run, despite promises made by the present government time and again to modernise this disastrous system. While there were assurances of improving the health sector, the continuous miserable state of public hospitals in major cities and the complete lack of such facilities in the rural areas prove that the government has failed to deliver on its promises. The current pandemic has further exposed the despicable state of affairs in this regard.

The ineffectual justice system has also not made any improvements in the past three years. The claims of the ruling party of overhauling the justice system and the speedy delivery of justice to people turned out to be empty and barren. Just a brief glance at our disintegrating health and justice systems is enough to comprehend the distance we have to travel as a nation in order to reach Jinnah’s vision of a welfare state.

The endless list of social issues continues to grow, and yet government policies and efforts are proving to be unsound and often a case of too little, too late. Much of the current state of affairs could largely be blamed on coming to power unprepared. The belief that ‘we will cross the bridge when we get to it’ has proved fatal.

Our country is faced with some mammoth challenges. However, when it comes to our opposition parties, we are equally in the dark. As a nation, we have no idea of the extent to which the opposition parties have prepared themselves for these democratic, social and economic challenges and to what extent their proposed policies and structural reform can tackle these challenges. There is a need to open up the channels essential for reviving the political debate at the grassroots level (such as student unions). It is unclear how any of these parties will work to rebuff the ongoing intrusion of non-democratic forces into political and governance spheres.

We are also unsure about how they will rebuild and strengthen democratic values (such as valuing respectful dissent) and institutions. The confidence of political workers in the political system is at an all-time low, and there is need for political parties to engage themselves actively at the grassroots level to engender trust with the people on key political matters. However, it is unclear what plans are in place from these parties to root out nepotism in and around party tiers and ranks and offer a more inclusive platform to their political workers.

Similar to the case of other democratic societies, the role of a responsible and effective opposition has been to act like a shadow government and work on key challenges faced by the nation – and offer alternatives. The fundamental purpose of the opposition parties is to present a coherent analytical understanding of where and why things are going wrong. The dreaming and scheming of an early election will not solve this puzzle. There is a dire need for a detailed plan to improve the worsening economic situation. It is only then that they will be able to tackle rising inequalities in the justice and healthcare sectors and take necessary steps to improve the crippling education system.

An important action they can undertake in this regard is to make available a blueprint of their reform policies to the people. Surely, during all this time, they must have developed some plan for helping overhaul the country’s stifling institutions. It is time now to have concrete policies and plans in place for the people to contemplate rather than just mere catchphrases and agitation-filled marches. A more appropriate strategy for the opposition parties would be to work together on policy reforms and publish their plans in full to public so that people can weigh up their options, and if appealing enough, they turn towards them for a better future.

It seems obvious that lessons have not been learnt from the multiple periods of political and democratic instability faced by our country. We must acknowledge that it is political discourse and political emancipation, of some sort, that helps deliver better leadership, a better economy and improved social services. It is also political discourse that helps educate the people to move away from disillusionment and their need to find messiahs.

The writer is an academic and works for the University of Sheffield.

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