by Ilhan Niaz

Pakistan is in the grips of a political crisis brought about by the inability of the interim government to conduct the May 2013 general elections in a free and fair manner

and the astonishing brutality and incompetence with which the police handled Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) workers on June 17, 2014, in Model Town, Lahore. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has launched a sustained bid to oust the government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and staged historic protests in major cities while sustaining a sit-in and nightly protest at Islamabad’s D-Chowk near the Constitution Avenue for over two months. The PTI’s ability to mobilize people and its hypnotic hold on the mass media have shaken the political status quo represented by the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP). Demanding the prime minister’s resignation, electoral reforms, and accountability for wrongdoing in May 2013, the PTI and Imran Khan have hammered away at the credibility of the PML-N, PPP, and others opposed to a New Pakistan. The government and parties that would prefer not to rock the gravy boat have countered by accusing the PTI of undermining political stability and risking military intervention while damaging Pakistan’s image and fragile economic recovery through its protests.

The PTI has pushed an integrity argument that has captured the imagination of the urban youth, the middleclass, and professionals, as well as many others. The key to this has been Imran Khan’s ability to connect with the deeply held, if little practiced, belief that the moral integrity of a national leader is the core requirement for successful governance. This argument strikes at the heart of the rural-landed dynastic and nepotistic structure of the PPP as well as the comparably dynastic and nepotistic, though more urban and plutocratic, structure of the PML-N. When the PPP renews its commitment to remaining the estate of a family, as it did on October 18, 2014, it further underscores disconnect between rulers and ruled that the PTI has skillfully exploited.  PML-N refusal to open up four key constituencies to a recount for more than a year after the elections and delay in the release of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) evaluation of the May 2013 elections helped PTI drive its integrity argument home – how could, they asked, a prime minister elected through compromised elections, maintain the integrity of his office, let alone the country and the state? The New Pakistan promised by the PTI is the extension of the integrity argument. The promise is that if a leader with integrity, which is to say Imran Khan, becomes the national leader, Pakistan’s sovereignty, prosperity and progress will be secure. Those that have drunk the PTI kool-aid believe that their coming to power will save Pakistan from itself.

Of course, there are many who take a contrary view of Pakistan’s predicament and future and adhere to a stability argument. This holds that the continued operation of the present political system will gradually produce improvement while bestowing macroeconomic advantages that accrue to countries that have achieved constitutional stability. The watchword here is patience, and the need for Pakistanis to hang in there until the inherent corrective magic of democracy can start to operate. Other issues, this view holds, are subordinate to stability. There is no point in politicians thinking about the long-term welfare of their people if they are likely to be overthrown or have their tenures cut short. Without stability performance fails to materialize for it takes many years of continuity for policies to bear fruit. Rapid changes of government, or governments that manage to limp through tenures subjected to repeated overthrow attempts, reduce the scope for implementing policies. This makes it easy for the incumbent to blame others for its failures (such as the ongoing PML-N effort to blame the PTI’s protests for economic problems) and diverts energy towards self-preservation. Without stability, democratic experience cannot accumulate and, democratic governments cannot deliver or be held electorally accountable.
Both arguments have merit and they are in their own ways highly optimistic and comforting. It is reassuring to think that once a morally good person becomes national leader his/her personal integrity will turn things around. It is also soothing to think that if we repeat a particular process enough times it will produce better results and we will get better at it. There are enough examples that can be plucked out of context to service either argument. Jinnah’s leadership of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) and the creation of Pakistan apparently support the integrity argument while Britain’s slow but steady evolution towards industrial revolution and parliamentary democracy can be used to validate the stability argument.

The trouble arises when either of these views is examined in context. Leaders like Jinnah, Nehru, Ambedkar, and Gandhi were products of British imperial rule and the structures created by that rule to manage India through co-option and compromise alongside repression and exploitation. Indians shaped the British Indian policy, did most of its administering, and even participated in commercial enterprise, but they did not have the final say in how the rules of the game were made or implemented. Colonial representation was, moreover, limited, and operated through a network of local, regional, and central institutions that existed alongside a reasonably efficient, clean, and merit-based civilian bureaucracy. Since independence, Pakistan’s rulers, reverting to the native genius, have dismantled the meritocratic as well as representational structures inherited from the British. Charismatic demagogues promising imminent utopia can come to power in Pakistan but another Jinnah-like leader is out of the question because there is no longer a context for such an individual to engage in politics.

Leaving aside the contextual requirements of grooming, able and upright leaders, is there any evidence that greater personal integrity or morality translates into a better quality of leadership? A lot depends on how one defines morality and integrity, but in a democracy like the United States, where the personal integrity level of national leaders is fairly consistent, there are wide divergences in the quality of performance. This said, the role of moneyed interests in a mature democracy is striking and the billions needed to run political campaigns have to come from somewhere. More advanced democracies have sanitised and systematic methods of plunder and subsidisation of the rich by the poor while in developing democracies the same problem (securing sufficient funds to finance a campaign, consolidating hold on power) is resolved through straightforward theft of the public wealth. When Imran Khan lambasts the PML-N and PPP for being kleptocrats and draws a comparison with the UK or other advanced industrialized nations he is being sincere. A more accurate description would be that Pakistan’s kleptocracy is crude while those that exist in the West are refined.

British gradualism is all well and good but just because Britain muddled through over a long period of time does not mean that other societies can do the same. Many societies simply don’t have the luxury of time. Hungary’s medieval parliamentary tradition collapsed because it was unable to co-exist with a royal authority strong enough to raise and sustain an army capable of holding back the Ottomans (who conquered Hungary in 1526). Britain’s medieval parliament could take time to evolve into its modern form due to geography, which insulated it from direct inland military pressure. The South Asian version of democratic gradualism is exemplified by India, which has, since 1952, enjoyed almost uninterrupted (except for the Emergency of 1975-77) democracy based on universal adult suffrage. The result, after six decades of democracy is that communal fascists led by Narendra Modi rule India, with the alternative to them being ruled by a dynastic estate (the Indian National Congress).

Belief in the self-correcting nature of democracy merits some discussion. In the United States of America, Congress has an approval rating of 13 percent and a re-election rate of 90 percent thereby establishing that the ability to stay in power has little to do with how performance is perceived even in the world’s richest and most self-congratulatory democracy. 47 percent of Americans are on food stamps, the top 1 percent have increased their share of the national wealth from 12 percent in 1980 to about one-third today. One reason for this is top-heavy pay structures that have seen the ratio of CEO-to-average-employee pay rise in the US from 30:1 a generation ago to over 200:1 today – in contrast in Japan, the ratio is currently 16:1. Since the top 1 percent contributes disproportionately to campaign finance, it is not surprising that lobbyists write legislation and elected representatives are beholden more to special interests than to the electorate. The United States has become, in organizational terms, a bureaucratic state with a spoils system of political patronage determining appointment to senior positions in the federal bureaucracy and vast secret agencies with hundreds of thousands of employees and analysts deployed round the clock to protect the republic from internal and external enemies. US debt, at 17 trillion dollars and counting, is unlikely to be contained without a serious diminution in US military power as some 90 percent of the increase in the debt is occasioned by defense spending and interest payments as well as welfare spending that are already inadequate by first world standards. The US also has the world’s highest proportion of people in prison, with some 2.5 million behind bars, roughly 1 percent of the adult population. Racial inequality has grown tremendously during the Great Recession with African American and Hispanic families losing between 40-66 percent of their net worth, while White families have lost only 16 percent of a much greater net worth in the same period. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, on average, Americans today work nearly a month more per year than they did in 1976 and some 50 million American adults are not registered to vote.

So, here are some awful truths. No system is self-correcting. Integrity requires context. Stability does not by itself produce improvement. Performance has no necessary relationship with staying in power – bad governments and rotten regimes can endure for decades, even generations. Pakistanis on both sides of the current debate of Integrity versus Stability need a bit of introspection and skepticism. The real challenges faced by Pakistan include improving the level of political wisdom while rehabilitating the state machinery through which any government, democratic, autocratic, or technocratic, must operate.