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The Kaptaan’s popcorn theatre

Another deadline issued. Another ultimatum from the container – of a cataclysmic reformation in the offing. We hang from the lip of the crevice of political uncertainty, as November 30 steadily, forebodingly, looms closer. The onset of winter, which in Islamabad, and much of Punjab, is the harbinger of a slowing down of the annual pace of things, is usually only about frosty mornings, gloomy evenings and the deathly silence of chilly winter nights.

But like the summer that passed before it, the air this winter crackles with an uncharacteristic nervous energy subduing even the rattle of allergic coughs and inconvenience of rheumy eyes – the perennial chaperones of the declining temperatures of winter.

So after seven years of uninterrupted democratic government and 67 years of creation we are poised yet again to decide the basic question of the best political and social arrangement for our country. A question that every nation state is beset with upon its creation and which in Pakistan’s case remains unanswered to date.

It is at its very core a question of the freedom of the individual versus the limits imposed on that freedom by those who have been tasked to govern society; it is about the ordering of society into a cohesive social and political unit, one that acquiesces to being governed; it is also about the question of what is best for an individual and for the collection of individuals we call a nation and whether that concept of what is best – because it includes social and political hierarchies which in turn impact the distribution of scarce economic resources – is to be decided by each individual for himself (a state of anarchy), by any one man or one party that considers himself or itself wise enough to understand what is required for the collective benefit of the nation (an autocracy), or by the elected representatives of people who through legislation and effective service delivery, ensure the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people (a democracy).

There have been various attempts to solve this question and in the 20th century in particular the results of such attempts have been witnessed in the many forms of socialism, fascism, communism, nationalism and more enduringly the creed of the capitalist market conjoined with liberal democracy. The most compelling ideologies that were fashioned in the modern world, and indeed it is a tribute to their relevance that they continue to be debated by political scientists and governments and philosophers to this day, were offered by Hegel and Marx.

Both placed an emphasis on the forces and processes that formed the continuous evolution of history and which, whether through the agency of dialectical interaction or otherwise, governed the actions and reactions of men with each other and with nature. Hegel criticised his contemporaries and predecessors for misunderstanding institutions and their power, owing to a failure to grasp the inalienable rational laws that formed the foundation of such man-made institutions (political and social and economic), and through which institutions could be altered and human character transformed.

Marx and his followers argued that mankind has willingly rendered itself subservient to those very institutions that are its own creations. He offered the division of society into classes, the concept of private property, the reification of the commodities produced by the market economy, and the concentration of wealth with a small number of people as examples of the inevitability of that subservience and a product of the misconception that such institutions had a life of their own. His solution was simply that mankind escape the chokehold of its own political, social and economic institutions, and in so doing liberate itself to craft an ordering of politics and society for the maximum benefit of all.

These dense philosophical concepts may sound irrelevant and vague to the uninitiated but they have carried with them the force of shaping much of the history of the 20th century. It is based on these ideologies and through the mass totalising systems they have produced – democratic socialism, free market capitalism, totalitarian communism and fascism – that governments across the world have, and continue to, govern their people.

In Pakistan the politics of the Left was prematurely muzzled (Pindi conspiracy) and systematically neutered in the 1980s by General Ziaul Haq. Through a cunning promotion of religion to subsume all competing ideologies that could challenge his totalitarian right-wing rule over Pakistan he proceeded to ban student politics, free speech, liberal education and democratic party based government and to distort history to fashion a singularly religious ethos for Pakistan ignoring the multiple ethnicities, competing economic interests, multiple languages and sectarian divisions that form the reality of Pakistan’s social and political landscape, then and now.

With successive interruptions to democracy through military coups, attempts to reform institutions and systems were repeatedly stalled. The underlying system of patronage politics was complemented through the absence of local government and a defunct first-pass-the-post electoral system, which is based on unequal geographical constituencies and an outdated population census, and has reduced democracy to a game of power grabbing and money making. Political parties since the time of Ziaul Haq fight to gain power over Punjab, victory over which essentially guarantees national rule.

Unequal constituencies also ensure the system of investing obscene amounts of money on electoral candidates and the eventual unequal diversion of development funds to choice constituencies, which leaves real development in the lurch and political parties handicapped to pass any real reform focused legislation. The feudal class relationships, the capture of economic resources by the elite of this country, the ineptitude of the civilian bureaucracy, the unequal distribution of agricultural wealth, the neglect of other provinces all continue unchecked and unfettered.

On November 30, therefore, if there indeed is a cataclysmic change, perhaps it will only guarantee a change of face at the top, but not a change of tone and certainly not a change of affairs. Imran Khan is right to demand electoral reform but wrong when he chooses to limit it to vote counting and verification. He has not been able to back up his demand for the prime minister’s resignation and investigation into electoral fraud, with anything more than his ambition to secure the position for himself, as he ignores the prickly questions of large-scale structural reform that would cover not only the electoral system, but also lead to an overhauling of the civilian bureaucracy, the establishment of a vibrant local bodies system, and the much-needed land reforms in the agricultural sector, to name a few. This is because, like the PML-N, his politics is also bereft of any ideology save that of the right-wing.

When the political theatre is dominated by only one creed and ethos, politics is reduced to a bare struggle for power. Because the status quo has endured over seven years of democratic government, the PML-N too feels unruffled and confident that it will ride out its tenure without passing any meaningful pro-development pro-people legislation in parliament, and instead continue building unnecessary roads and signing mega infrastructure contracts that will only benefit the elite of this country.

One tends to be sceptical therefore of what will unfold on the 30th of November – if anything more than popcorn theatre. But that may well be because perhaps I, like other columnists, am secretly on the government’s payroll – this being the latest among the Kaptaan’s never ending repertory of bogus indictments of all and sundry who have dared a critique of him and his party, a product of his dystopian imagination. Well that certainly places me and my fellow columnists in a right pickle, as we will now, in the event any such pot of gold is indeed offered us, have to suffer the horrible boredom of having to turn it down if only to disprove the Kaptaan.

The writer is a partner at a professional services firm.  Email: kmushir@hotmail.com, Twitter: @kmushir

Khayyam Mushir, "The Kaptaan’s popcorn theatre," The News. 2014-11-22.
Keywords: Social sciences , Public administration , Economic aspects , Land reforms , Political issues , Political parties , Politics-Pakistan , Agricultural-Pakistan , Government-Pakistan , Bureaucracy , Democracy , Gen Zia ul Haq , Imran Khan , Pakistan , PMLN