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Dubious assumptions

For some reason that only a team of historians and social scientists may fathom, our public discourse is, and has been, influenced more by dubious assumptions than facts. This is indicative of a mindset prone to intellectual dishonesty that may eventually cause a disconnect from reality.

A disconnect from reality would lead to absence of a stable frame of reference and that, in turn, would cause insecurity and restlessness that we clearly suffer from. When, for example, under a military rule, we yearn for democracy; when under a democratic setup, we plead for military rule; and when under a setup that is neither democratic nor authoritarian, we feel free to create chaos – a situation that has existed for about the last three years.

To return to the influence of dubious assumptions on our thinking, let’s consider, for the present, four such assumptions: one, the poor and illiterate sections of our society do not understand the need for democracy; two, bad governance is due to the ‘system’; three ‘the good people’ would have a better chance of being elected if the electoral laws are applied more stringently; four, the terrorists are neither Pakistanis nor Muslims, but foreign agents.

To begin with the first assumption, poverty and illiteracy are the most frequently assumed causes of the failure of our experiments in democracy. This assumption does appear to be non-controversial but there has never been any factual basis to establish this correlation. Its validity has never been questioned, perhaps, due to the embarrassing possibility that refusal to accept illiteracy and poverty as causes of the failure of democracy would appear like a defence of these social evils. Be that as it may, let me present some facts.

Since no general elections were held till 1970 there was no basis to make an assumption either way about the political behaviour of various segments of the society. That opportunity came when the first general elections were held. Although the incidence of illiteracy was much higher, the hold of the feudal class was much stronger, and the effect of the electronic media negligible, almost half a century ago, people voted for a populist party, and a large number of electables and notables, even in the rural areas, were defeated. Incidentally, in Karachi where the incidence of illiteracy was the lowest in the country and feudal values non-existent, most of the people voted for sectarian parties.

If that is not a good enough reason to question the traditional correlation, let’s look at a recent survey conducted by an English monthly magazine, where one of the questions that the respondents were asked was whether they favoured democracy. In response 70 percent of those with no schooling or less than primary level schooling favoured democracy. But, here is a surprise, only 55 percent of the graduates and 62 percent of the post-graduates voted for democracy. How say you, members of the jury?

The second assumption is that bad governance is due to the ‘system’ that needs to be replaced. By ‘system’ is meant the parliamentary system that is supposed to be incompatible with our needs and circumstances. We should, therefore, switch over to the presidential form of government. This assumption ignores the fact that no country in the world that is ethnically or linguistically divided into separate regions (states or provinces) has ever thought of experimenting with the presidential form of government.

The reason is simple. A candidate for president from a state or province with the largest population will always have an edge over other candidates. In Pakistan that province is Punjab. The smaller provinces would, therefore, never agree to a presidential form of government. We should, therefore, stick to the consensus achieved in 1973.

But the debate goes on. The latest participant in this debate is Lt Gen (r) Shahid Aziz. In his autobiography Yeh Khamoshi Kahan Tak, he gives this prescription: disband all political parties as parties are not needed in an Islamic state; introduce a presidential system for it will be stronger and more effective; the president should be elected for a term of 10 years that may be extended for 10 more years through a referendum; and to keep an eye on the administration there should be a council of professionals consisting of members who have retired from their respective professions and are at least 60 years old.

If you still feel up to it we can take up the third assumption that ‘good people’ will have a chance to get elected if the electoral laws are made more stringent. While most of the constitutions in the world have no more than two qualifications for the membership of a legislature – citizenship and age – our constitution has no less than 22 qualifications and disqualifications including, thanks to late Ziaul Haq, the requirement that a member should have a ‘good character’ and be ‘sagacious , righteous, non-profligate and honest and ameen.’ This should be enough to eliminate all the ‘bad people’.

But trying to do more, the Election Commission has come up with a longish nomination form requiring the candidates to disclose matters relating to their personal lives.

This ever-growing list of qualifications, disqualifications and disclosures can serve only one purpose: it would discourage many good people from participating in the elections for fear of being maligned, ridiculed and defamed before the election tribunals for any human failings from which no human being is completely immune from.

I would, if I may, respectfully suggest that the ECP should avoid making the process of election a parade of suspects. The right thing to do would be to reduce the qualifications and disqualifications from 22 to nine as originally provided in the Constitution of 1973 before its distortion by Ziaul Haq.

The fourth assumption, advanced by the apologists of the terrorists and extremists, is that terrorists are neither Muslims nor Pakistani, but foreign agents. This assumption leads to a conclusion that would have been funny had the circumstances not been so tragic. Let’s see how.

In the first place, a person who is a Muslim and a Pakistani can be a foreign agent. The two are not mutually exclusive. Second, no non-Muslim of any nationality has been found involved in terrorist activities. Third, many non-Pakistani Muslims (Uzbek, Tajik, Chechan, Arab) and Pakistani Muslim terrorists have either been caught or killed, or have claimed responsibility for specific act of terrorism.

Hence, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the terrorists are Pakistani and non-Pakistani Muslims, who are foreign agents. Thus, the apologists for the terrorists only succeed in making them foreign agents as well which they probably are not.

One cannot but observe that it seems as if a big national endeavour is on to establish a disconnect from reality in as many different ways as possible. But we cannot create a parallel universe of our own choosing. We cannot overwhelm the reality. In the end reality would overwhelm us.

The writer is a former civil servant. Email: iqjafar@gmail.com

Iqbal Jafar, "Dubious assumptions," The News. 2013-03-12.