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Save the system

We must save the system. So agree Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazalur Rehman, Asif Zardari and Munawar Hassan, the Skipper, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat and the Khans of Charsadda. The system may be full of flaws and pitfalls. It may make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It may reward the corrupt and the incompetent and penalise the honest and the competent.

It may produce mafias and gangs. It may empower thugs and thieves. It may leave one half of the population illiterate and without access to basic amenities. It may give a large section of society the choice between starving and killing themselves or others. Yet we must preserve the system, for the alternative is chaos, disorder and anarchy in which life will be nasty, poor, brutish and short.

Dr Tahirul Qadri’s long march and sit-in in the capital may have fallen well short of achieving its avowed objectives. But it has brought all leading politicians on the same page and made them speak with one voice. Seldom before have we seen such shows and vows of solidarity coming from top leaderships.

The message is loud and clear: If a Canada-returned cleric can bring tens of thousands of people of both genders and all age groups on the road in ice-cold weather, leaders across the political spectrum can also sink their differences and forge unity in their ranks to combat his ‘hidden’ agenda and ‘obnoxious’ intentions. Politicians have matured, democracy is beginning to take root and the rest will be taken care of. We can hardly have better news. If, for nothing else, the doctor deserves kudos for making this happen.

Dr Qadri’s demands unnerved many, but arguably none more than Nawaz Sharif, who saw himself just a few yards away from becoming the country’s first third-time prime minister. Five years ago, Benazir Bhutto, the Daughter of Democracy, saw herself in the same position. Unfortunately, destiny had something different in store for her, as well as her spouse, and many others who have been beneficiaries or losers as a result of her demise.

Surely, Nawaz Sharif didn’t want to be third-time unlucky. He had already waited for nearly one-and-a-half decade to get back in the saddle. He even allowed a grossly corrupt and inefficient government to complete its tenure, lest the system be shaken. But when the country was gearing up for the polls and the stage was possibly set for his return to power, Dr Qadri, better known as a religious scholar, jumped into the political arena almost from nowhere and challenged all the heavyweights. The upshot of his demands was that, electoral reforms being the need of the hour, should precede the elections, and the elections could be put off, if needed.

If we go by the letter of the law, only the popularly elected parliament is competent to change the electoral system. But Dr Qadri, by calling for electoral reforms to precede elections, was putting the cart before the horse. One could easily smell a rat in the whole affair. A man who returns from abroad and owes allegiance to a foreign government stages a mammoth rally and then threatens to march on the capital to force the government to accept his demands. Left to his own, the man had neither the means nor the popular support to come up with such demands. On top of all that, what he was asking for was illegal, unconstitutional, undemocratic, unethical, and unreasonable; it might have upset the applecart of democracy. In the end, Dr Qadri saw reason and gave in, and thus saved the system.

Yes, we must save the system. Our assemblies may predominantly represent the privileged classes, such as big landlords and wealthy urbanites. More often than not, the electorate may find itself between the devil and the deep blue sea and may have no option but to elect ‘the lesser evil’. A handful of families and dynasties may rule the roost. Politics may have become a family business in which parents make way only for their children, and positions are shared only with siblings or spouses. The political parties, by and large, may be no more than a platform to prop up sons and daughters. Yet we must preserve the system.

The legislatures and the government, being creatures of the elite, may not undertake drastic, pro-people reforms, and changes they make may be confined to shifting the locus of power from one set of elites to another: transferring powers from the president to the prime minister, from the federal government to the provinces, or, at the most, replacing the monopolistic powers of the ruling party with the duopoly of the government and the opposition. Staging elections in the current system may be running in circles as the same elite – Nawabs and Sardars, Khans and Maliks, Pirs and Makhdooms – will make it to the top in turns. Yet we must save the system.

We may have an elitist democracy where those with the carrot (the moneyed class) or the stick (the feudal class) have been both principal players and major beneficiaries. The ordinary people may increasingly feel themselves alienated from the political process and disillusioned with it. Constitutional and legal changes may have at best been peripheral, focusing on toning up or down the powers of the president and the prime minister and abolishing or resurrecting the office of the deputy commissioner. Corruption may be endemic in high places, and those who matter may be well short on commitment to fight this problem, mainly because they themselves are involved in it. We may have one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world. The majority of our lawmakers, top politicians and business magnates may be tax evaders and loan defaulters. Yet we must save the system.

I have with me an electronic copy of Capitalism’s Achilles Heel by Raymond Baker, which contains nearly half-a-dozen pages on the alleged corruption of two of Pakistan’s most celebrated political dynasties. Even a glance at these pages is enough to suggest that this book is a conspiracy against Pakistan’s democracy, which is the fruit of immense sacrifices by these two leading dynasties.

For, why else on earth one can brand the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the two biggest icons of democracy, and those close to them as kleptocrats and charge them with loot and plunder, of corruption and abuse of power, including doling out jobs, massive lending without collateral, obtaining kickbacks and commissions in different deals ranging from pre-shipment inspection and motorway construction to import of tractors and trade in gold, money-laundering, owning ill-gotten offshore property and companies, causing banks to default, and what not!

Every democracy-loving Pakistani must denounce the book as well as the author, who, one may even suggest, is part of the axis out to derail democracy in the country. It’s a sin to charge Benazir Bhutto, who lived and died for the people, with graft. The best way we can pay tribute to her is to save this system.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H. Zaidi, "Save the system," The News. 2013-01-21.