Back to the 90s

The allure of a democracy—above all other governance structures—rests on two fundamental assumptions: 1) that the collective ‘will of the people’, concerning issues of public importance, will translate into legislative and executive actions; and 2) that, over time, the democratic political enterprise will learn from past mistakes, and evolve systems that do not regress the culture of politics.
In Pakistan, sadly, both these assumptions seem to have collapsed.
Politics, in Pakistan, is a family profession. With the exception of PTI and few fringe parties, Pakistan’s political structure is governed by dynastic families. In PML(N), leadership of the party can only run in the Sharif family. In PPP, the leader can only be a Bhutto (even if he or she is a Zardari). In JUI(F), the orange-turbaned Maulana and his family continue to hold power. In essence, we live in the age of Democracy (Pvt) Ltd.
Like all other private limited concerns, the endeavour of this Democracy (Pvt) Ltd. structure is to achieve two specific goals: 1) maximise profits for its owners; and 2) retain complete control of the governance matrix. Naturally, achievement of societal good or public welfare is an ancillary concern in such democratic structures—entirely subservient to the primary goal of serving the private interests of its owners.
For now, Pakistan had made peace with this model of politicking. We were told that, given enough time, this structure will lead to eventual public good. That time and dogged adherence to the democratic process will iron out all teething issues. That, over time, our political enterprise will learn from their mistakes, and adopt lasting democratic practices. In this regard, the oft-quoted example—frequently repeated across the posh drawing-rooms of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad—is that of the lessons learnt during the lost political decade of the 1990s. It has been argued that the politics of the 1990s, nascent and immature, is now a thing of the past. That our political parties have learnt their lessons from the horse-trading days of Changa-Manga. That partisan leg-pulling between PPP and PML(N), which resulted in the premature collapse of four democratic governments during the 1990s, will not happen again. Our politicians have recognised that such tactics only invite extra-constitutional forces (read: General Musharraf) to take advantage of the situation.
Since then, democracy has learnt its lesson, it was claimed. Civilian governments will now be allowed to complete their stipulated term, and horse-trading will be banished from our land. Proof? The Charter of Democracy, signed between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto agreed that civilian governments will not be brought down through leg-pulling. And the 18th Constitutional Amendment, introduced immediately after the vanquishing of General Musharraf, inserted Article 63-A in our Constitution, as a demonstration of unshakable political commitment against horse-trading.
Well, as it turns out, none of this rhetoric was true. Democracy, like the families that own it, have not learnt their lesson. And all the talk about Democracy (Pvt.) Ltd. evolving into sustainable structures, was just hogwash.
What is unravelling in Islamabad today is scarcely believable. The champions of democracy have torn through the façade of Charter of Democracy and Article 63-A, and sworn fidelity to the only principles that govern any Pvt. Ltd.: retention of control of the governance matrix, and protection of profits created therefrom.
No amount of narrative creation can conceal these underlying facts. In a recent television interview, Rana Sanaullah was asked whether he considers dissident PTI legislators (taking refuge in Sindh House) as ‘lotas’. To help him answer this question, the host played Rana Sanaullah’ past statements where he had claimed that anyone who defects from the party-line, in times of crises, is a ‘lota’, who should have no space in the political paradigm. Rana Sb., true to his oath of serving the political masters, stated that the dissident PTI members were ‘mujahids’ not ‘lotas’. Logic? According to Rana Sb., anyone splitting atoms with the opposition and joining the government will be a ‘lota’, whereas anyone leaving the government to join forces with the opposition was a ‘mujahid’. Incredible.
In the wake of these developments, it is important to ask the fundamental question again: what is the virtue of a democratic system that neither prefers public welfare over private interests, nor learns from the mistakes of its past to evolve systems that regress the culture of politics?
This is not an argument against PML(N) and PPP. This is certainly not an argument in favour of PTI (which, given the chance, would have done no better). This is just a lament against the ‘system’ that has tried to fool the people of this country over the past many decades, and promised that one day (eons from now), our democratic ship will sail towards the tides of stability and progress. It is a cry against a small group of people who—at least since 1985—have gotten a stranglehold over our political enterprise, and are willing to gamble with the soul of this country, so long as it momentarily prolongs their transient rule.
At its core, this is a protest against being dragged back to the lost decade of the 1990s. A time when Pakistan was completely consumed by meaningless partisan bickering, and did not make any tangible progress. A decade when Pakistan got left behind the rest of the world—in terms of economic growth and technological progress—and is still trying to catch up.
So what should we do? Should we wait a few decades (centuries?) on the faint promise that our Democracy (Pvt.) Ltd. will one day learn its lesson, and prefer institutional development over personal fiefdoms? Or should we, instead, think of restructuring our system of governance, so as to envision a more functional and result-oriented constitutional framework?
These are serious questions that require national debate. There is no reason to remain pedantic in our approach to the existing democratic framework. This is a time for imagining a better society, in a new democratic paradigm. One that does not promise eventual (maybe) results, and instead deliver the promise of democracy to our people today.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter

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