Food for thought on how to use politics to build the state and invest in society to form a plural, prosperous, inclusive and stable Pakistan
On November 16, 1988, Benazir Bhutto won the general elections and after 17 suspenseful days took oath as prime minister. A lot of water has flown under and over the bridges since that triumphant fortnight. As a tribute to Benazir’s struggle, dream, and eventual sacrifice of her life for a progressive, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan, this piece attempts to offer food for thought to the political elite on how they may use politics to build the state and invest in society to form a plural, prosperous, inclusive and stable Pakistan. Appreciation of the following aspects will provide necessary base for a win-win and successful transformation.
In my view, Benazir Bhutto was the last thinking politician. Since her departure, none of the leading political voices (fiery Imran Khan, seasoned Nawaz Sharif and young Bilawal) have a clue of how the mess can be sorted out as they are not thinking deep enough, seeing far enough, and connecting wide enough. They are good at a game that hurts and humiliates the ‘other’, but shorn of the idea of how to embrace adversaries so that a common good thus generated can help millions.
Pakistan’s total mess can be summed up as PIAASS: Poverty, ignorance, anger, alienation and structures of suppression instituted by the colonial masters but solemnly sustained by the post-47 elite. A collective regeneration will occur as we tackle it with democratic innovation, social regeneration, entrepreneurship, economy of inclusion relying on women and green, and designing education and labour systems compatible with the 21st century.
Our massive socio-political divides, that we have more of than most societies, result from limitations of vocabulary (try the word secular on right, and Islam on left to see it). Using our political imagination to create a plural language compatible with our socio-cultural multiplicity will help us find new ways to affably interact, bond and prosper.
Decolonising the state and dignifying the citizen
Pakistan’s deep rooted state-citizen distrust is a colonial legacy that has been preserved by design. The Viceroy is dead but his team is playing and plundering with the same impunity. The key agencies instituted by colonial masters are the ones that have failed the most and widened the gulf of state-citizen distrust. They are the: bureaucracy, judiciary, police, tax collectors, military, an imperial disdain for popular will and public representatives, and the elusive and sham slogan of the ‘rule of law’.
Theorising it lightly, the state is a set of institutions a society gives to itself. Thus, by definition citizens may change any institution which is not delivering or has become redundant through popular will. The above agencies were given to, and not chosen, by Pakistanis; but we dare not reform them. Many of these have worn holy shrouds and subjecting them to popular will is projected as unholy, sinful and criminal thought. The gist of the colonial project was to control natives, for uninterrupted and unfettered appropriation of resources. The key of intended control was to suspect and humiliate a native.
Dignity of citizens is linked to how the state authorities popularise and legitimise the use of coercion and violence to keep ‘social order’, and with what ease citizens can be humiliated and killed as ‘enemy’ of the state. Decolonisation will hinge on ensured dignity and equality of all citizens: men, women; rich, poor; majority or minority; and urban or rural. This won’t happen till we change the ‘Viceroy’s Team’.
Diffusing unevenly concentrated social power
Poverty, vulnerability, marginalisation, and externally induced disadvantages are some manifestations of social powerlessness. Four historical sources of power, and as many of their new faces, have added to uneven concentration of social power in the hands of a few. Denoted by MNOP, they are: masculinity, nobility, office and property; and the new ones are, money, nomination, opportunity, and popularity.
To help distribute social power we need to gradually diffuse unevenness by instituting new catalysts of social power, privilege and prestige viz. excellence, diligence, enterprise and innovation. These will follow affirmative action via equitable, enabling opportunities to learn, earn and compete. The new system will premise on celebration of mind over muscle, brain over brawn, heart over ego and wit over the writ.
Four democratic innovations
Let’s consider four democratic innovations: 1) new political troika; 2) new party approach; 3) electoral cycle invoking more participation; and 4) actively engaging all citizens in oversight of quality delivery of basic services by municipalities (both free and priced), e.g., policing/security, health, education; waste and sanitation; transportation and communication; and sports and recreation.
New troika means we have directly elected prime minister to manage internal affairs; and a president responsible for external affairs (defence, diplomacy and trade). While the directly elected, one house of parliament which, through plural committees, is tasked rule making/amending; democratic oversight of PM & president; accountability of public institutions, policies & practices; and inter-federation harmony, promotion of plural politics and dispute resolution. Troika will also be at provincial and municipal levels.
Political parties should act as membership organisations with spirit of public interest enterprises. Each party has three internal streams (federal, provincial, and local). The principles the parties can follow are how to implement party manifesto for collective good while serving maximum of their members without concentration of party power that leads to internal exclusion, bickering and counter democracy.
For number 3 & 4, let’s make it mandatory for all voters to be members of a political party; without that they would not be issued CNIC. In their neighbourhoods, all voters must join associations formed around vocation, interest and oversight of publically funded basic services. Thus every voter will get to vote over 12 times in a four-year cycle. The elections of the PM, president and parliament will be held in different years. The PM/president must get 60 per cent of the cast votes to assume office.
Rethinking justice, punishment, compensation and dispute resolution
Currently, most of the disputes are settled outside the formal pale of law, and in the personalised social realms of community. Let’s design new delivery mechanism where society (as abstract as state) holds stakes in resolving disputes of individual and groups with spirit of compensation, rehabilitation of the aggrieved, re-integration of the perpetrator, refining of the deviant citizen, and social regeneration using collective societal affection and fraternity. Our incumbent justice system is elitist, expensive, exclusive, partial and prejudiced against women, poor, minors and the minorities. The mainstream, rights-filled discourse does not have space or place for forgiveness or creative ways of regenerative compensation.
If we wish to have greener and glowing leaves of a plant, we don’t sprinkle water on leaves; we water the roots of the plant. That’s what we need to do for healthier, plural society, deeper democracy, more relevant and responsive state institutions, and inclusively gainful economy.
Economy, industry and prosperity
For this we need to consider four initiatives: a) investing in the mass mobility and high-value skills of new labour (women, seniors, persons with special needs); b) increasing green cover from present 2 per cent to say 25 per cent in a decade, and new plantation of medicinal, fruit & timber trees can become bankable collateral for the persons below the poverty line (everyone below that lines gets 15 trees as virtual property); c) instituting team-enterprises that produce competitive exportable commodities; and, d) minimising the role of state/government in running or managing businesses which only promote inefficiency, and venality.
Planned and patient exit from the dystopia
Almost everyone has a utopia. However, the real challenge is to plan pleasant, affable, and if possible, efficient transition from dystopia. To assess the large scale usefulness of a transformative plan, it is helpful to see what degree of common good or positive externality the proposed plan will generate.
Currently, there is antagonistic relationship between the de jure and the de facto domains in Pakistan. It’s because institutions, rules, laws and official patronage have not been designed keeping the subaltern interests and lives in mind, and all that we have in the name of state and constitution has not organically grown from social and lived experience of people and communities. We have seriously imbalanced mix of faith, fear, freedom and festivity in our social and political design. Let’s relax, accept the reality and our failures, and have a future which is for everyone, not just for the ‘Viceroy’s Team’.