As we look through our turbulent political history, it seems obvious that civilian politicians have remained at a disadvantage in a system that has allowed other institutions to assume a huge share of power.
The results of this imbalance have been witnessed over and over again. But, we also need to examine what the political leadership can do on its own to remedy a problem that has remained with us for decades. The problem is, perhaps, bigger than the issue of corruption that has been hyped up by the media and other forums and has swept people into a tide of opposition for politicians.
This is naturally a dangerous situation given our need for the political class to rise and play a due leadership role in society. Instead of attempting to facilitate this rise and stand by civilian leaders, we have become a nation that rejoices when a leader falls. Of course, there is some logic behind this. Successive political parties have failed to play a beneficial role in improving the lives of people or implementing other steps that could bolster the system. Instead, they have worked primarily for their own self-interest. A major consequence of this is the unfortunate creation of dynasties such as the Sharif and Bhutto families.
Within a viable, working political setup, there is no reason why the leadership should pass from one family member to the other or why other people from within the same party should not be considered for the top roles. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why we have witnessed the stunted development our political leadership, with parties themselves holding back any people who may potentially challenge those at the top of the hierarchy.
Beyond this, there is also the question of sheer common sense. By now, all – or almost all – of our major parties know that they can easily become the target of external forces whenever an opportunity arises. It is, therefore, essential that they come together to block the powers that threaten them time and time again.
In the latest case, the failure to do away with the always controversial Article 61 and 62 of the constitution has led directly to the downfall of Nawaz Sharif. The former prime minister has not made any comment on why he had previously defended these articles that had been inserted into the constitution by a military dictator to keep politicians in check. That dictator – General Ziaul Haq – played his cards wisely and well. The politicians elected by the people have failed to do the same.
As a result, we have a situation in which a court has been able to remove an elected prime minister with barely any objection coming from the political parties themselves. Indeed, some parties – like the PTI – have started a vicious campaign of celebration and made a demand for still more blood with a series of rallies at which ferocious calls have been made for Nawaz to be jailed or further punished.
The PPP – which, through its own history, should know better – has also not directly spoken of the need to urgently remedy matters. Yes, in the past it had demanded that both articles of the constitution should be repealed. Right now, it appears to be playing its own game. It is difficult to know precisely what this game is as Bilawal Bhutto’s statements often seem somewhat incoherent and it is difficult to understand precisely what point the young chairperson of the party is attempting to make. Right now, alongside other parties, it should be holding meetings to assess precisely what situation has developed after the ruling against Nawaz Sharif and what giant pitfalls lie open for politicians in the future.
This is especially true since Article 61 and Article 62, which refer to the need for public representatives to be “sadiq” and “ameen”, have been very loosely interpreted by the ECP officers who scrutinise candidates. The flaw, of course, lies within the law itself and the unclear terminology in which it is phrased. Perhaps partially in jest, the ECP officials who accept papers from candidates have demanded details about their private lives or asked them to recite sometimes difficult verses from the Holy Quran as a test of their piety. This has been repeatedly commented on. Even so, the politicians have failed to act and we are paying the price for this today.
Political parties have also let us down by failing to keep people united behind them. The ouster of Sharif has led to very few public protests. Of course, this is partially because his party does not wish to create trouble. But the widespread perception among the people is that the majority of leading politicians are, indeed, corrupt and hold massive reservoirs of wealth while people gain very few benefits from the state.
The linkages between political corruption, corruption at other levels and poor governance have been drawn up many times by top experts. The most brilliant of these analyses possibly comes from the economist Amartya Sen.
It should not, however, take any particular brilliance, a sense of ethics or a study of academic discourse for politicians to understand that to stay in power in a country with a history like ours, it is essential that they carry the people with them. The people, after all, stand at the heart of democracy. When it is possible to easily disillusion and disappoint them, disaster is likely to follow.
Political parties must also realise that while they act as opponents within parliament, they have many interests in common. It is disheartening to see the lack of willingness amongst the political leadership to stick together and work out solutions to the problems that they face. It is not difficult to trace the point from which these problems began. And the same can happen for any government – no matter how hard it tries. Running battles against each other at this point is not a wise step – except perhaps for those whose only hope of winning power is through intervention by external agents.
The events of the past few weeks and the judgment by the Supreme Court should compel our political leaders to think. Divergent statements have emerged. There are politicians who have pinpointed the risks inherent in the sequence that has been watched by the entire nation on their television screens and presented as a political soap opera.
The same kind of coverage has been continuing for days and has been carried over into social media. Perhaps this is what some powers seek. Real political leaders would, however, act wisely if they brought themselves together to consider the wider fate of their country, its people and its system.
What we have seen is not a verdict against corruption. The results of the investigation by NAB are still to be tabled. But there is a strong likelihood that corruption will continue unchecked in various spheres even as political parties grow weaker and more and more questions arise – such as those being asked by the Jamaat-e-Islami about who should represent the people of Pakistan in their parliament. Answers to these questions need to be found and disclosed to the people.
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The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.