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A case for change

The land of the Indus is not particularly fertile for revolutions. An individual has to operate as the member of a family, a clan and different social networks. Political ambition too has to contend with the same web-like social structure.

Yet, in Pakistan’s brief history, there was a leader who mesmerised the masses to overturn the fossilised system in place. Once in power, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started behaving ‘normally’ and was no different from the authoritarian feudal masters of this land. But he managed to maintain his link with the people, chose the gallows over dishonour and his legend, therefore, lives on.

Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir directly inherited his populism and carried it forward. Her heirs have tried hard to keep the flame burning by posturing as Robin Hood – doubling the minimum wage and launching relief packages like the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). But they lack the charisma the two Bhuttos had.

After five years of uninterrupted rule, the PPP suffers from all the disadvantages of incumbency, especially when the scorecard is sketchy. The PML-N is taking full advantage of the PPP’s weakness, mopping up defectors from various parties and confidently heading to stage a comeback in the centre.

The ‘tsunami’ and the ‘million march’ may be behind us but have left a clear message – the Pakistani society yearns for change. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have highlighted the sense of frustration and deprivation that is felt by those who are not part of the muk-muka system. To both, change amounts to weeding out the rot in the political milieu.

Nawaz Sharif believes in change that will bring his party to power in Islamabad, while controlling Punjab. If his wish comes true, we shall be living under a quasi two-party system as the PPP would don the mantle of the opposition in the centre while remaining part of the government in Sindh. The change in roles between the two largest political parties will in fact be a minimalist kind of change, ushering in a new round of patronage and cronyism.

In contrast, Imran Khan makes a forceful case for change on the basis that the PPP and the PML-N have both been tried but failed to fulfil their promises to the masses. If he succeeds in reviving the mass contact seen in his earlier rallies, he should emerge as the third force in the coming election.

His party’s election prospects may have improved by the induction of known politicians but his claim of radical change has lost some of its gloss. Tahirul Qadri’s concept of change is more idealistic, just like his slogan of turning the Blue Area of Islamabad into Tahrir Square. A curious admission that there is a need for change in the country has come from none other than the Minister for Information Qamar Zaman Kaira. Kaira went on to clarify that it was going to take time as the situation could not be changed within days.

If some readers did not grasp the meaning of his message, they should note that Kaira spoke of “fundamental changes made in the democratic system” by the PPP-led government. While the two prime ministers from the PPP have been equally fond of gloating over their government and parliament completing its five-year term, Kaira went one step further by announcing that the next (PPP-led) government would be able to deliver!

Politicians are known to have excessive levels of self-belief. Obviously, Kaira has no idea about how anxiously the people are waiting for a real change and not the one suddenly being showcased by him.

Volumes of columns have been written about the plummeting standards of governance and the dangerous weakening of state institutions and the economy. While corruption could very well be a part of human nature, dishonour is still considered shameful in most societies. In today’s Pakistan, dishonour has become a way of life for people in power.

An example of those in power flaunting, rather than repenting, dishonour is the legislators with fake degrees. Former chief minister of Balochistan, Nawab Aslam Raisani set the tone by denying any difference between a real and fake degree.

If the holders of fake degrees have an iota of shame left in them, they would take voluntary retirement from elections for having behaved dishonourably. Indeed, if the political parties have any sense of honour, they would announce that no party tickets will be issued to these delinquents.

If the main opposition party does not punish those who sullied their own honour and that of their party, it would be futile to expect a change in the existing pervasive system of corruption and cronyism. The only difference may be that one side practices corruption in an upfront manner and the other behind a smokescreen of uprightness.

Imran’s real problem is that people would rather vote for someone who connects with them than one acknowledged as honourable but idealistic. A politician who can connect with the masses will eventually win on the evening of Election Day. Nawaz Sharif has proved that he can connect with the masses even outside Punjab. Imran Khan’s argument about match-fixing is not going to influence the voters. He has to develop a better chemistry with the rural voters to do well in elections.

Election 2013 will also demonstrate if the nation’s threshold of tolerance for dishonour has really gone up. If people do not care about being cheated and do not have the courage to sanction those who have cheated, then the future is nothing but sombre.

Tailpiece: People have lost faith in the politicians’ capacity to right the wrongs their fellow politicians have committed in managing the economy. As a result, there are high expectations of band-aid solutions from the caretaker setup.

Apparently, politicians are quite content with the caretakers adopting corrective measures which they do not want carried out under their watch. Italy has gone through an experience like that. It could be Pakistan’s turn next.

The writer is a former ambassador to the European Union. Email: saeed.saeedk@ gmail.com

M. Saeed Khalid, "A case for change," The News. 2013-03-01.