It’s become clear to me over the past few weeks that Pakistanis urgently need a revolution. Not so fast, Azadi and Inquilab supporters — I’m not your champion. The revolution I speak of is not of the political variety. Not to say that our political system is all roses. It does desperately need reform — but from within, not without. But I digress. What most urgently needs a sea change is our individual and collective thought processes. Then we can finally have an adult conversation. And talk political reform.
Here are three examples of gaps in our thought process, manifested in the current political imbroglio. First, let’s talk electoral rigging. Yes, some surely happened in Pakistan last year. There are no developing countries where it wouldn’t have. Was it greater than any previous Pakistani elections? No. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again, but should we scrap an entire (very costly) election a year after it happened if the result wouldn’t have been very different in a re-do? No. Here we have a case of an international body that specifically evaluates electoral processes in many, many countries, which said the 2013 elections were by and large okay. But we also have some number of first-time urban, educated, upper middle class voters who went to polling stations and saw some irregularities, and lived to tell the tale. These few then magically extrapolated that experience to the entire country, and suddenly we have anecdotal evidence trumping a systematic study. Strike one, for propping anecdotes over evidence.
Second, there’s the idea that democracy isn’t meant for Pakistan, since it sends the same old people out to loot us. There is the narrative of the ‘benevolent dictator’, an oxymoron if there was ever one, being a better option. There’s selective ‘evidence’ presented to support this, of growth rates of a few Asian tigers. (The democratic West’s successes get obscured by Pakistan’s anti-Western rhetoric). But a new political class hasn’t been able to emerge in Pakistan precisely because we haven’t allowed it enough time to happen. Look at our history, and it’s obvious that the disenchantment sets in very soon after an election ends and governance (or a lack thereof) begins. So we clamour for an ouster. Suddenly, the option that did not seem appetising only in the previous season becomes the rosy alternative we want more than anything — though the alternative has done nothing to earn that position in the interim. And it becomes a cycle. Strike two, for our impatience and preference for short-term gratification.
Strike three, for our love of conspiracy theories. Of course we can’t rule out some behind-the-scenes maneuvering or (to me, more likely) encouragement of the protesters by the army. But the idea of a master puppet show being played out (on either side) should be put to rest by the fact that it just hasn’t played out very well. Politics is murkier than that, with a great many competing motivations and personalities at play. Conspiracy theories flourish here, given the lack of transparency, spreading of information based on hearsay, the common man feeling a lack of control, and a desire to oversimplify the world by attributing absolute power to a single actor. Oppose these conspiracy theories with a rational argument, and you will be labeled an ‘agent’, sealing the theory. Related to this, we see extreme political polarisation, with everyone making politics personal. So no one wants to hear the other side, let alone understand it. A reasoned approach is dismissed, with a wave of the hand and accusations of being a stooge of the opposing party. The truth, which no one seems interested in, is more muddied: each side has genuine grievances, and has made mistakes.
Let go of our flawed thinking, and we might be able to find our way out of this mess, and in the long term, to a better political system. Here are a few examples of what we might do.
Pakistan has more 24/7 news channels than most countries, I would venture. But in this crisis, the television media has speculated, touted conspiracies, and muddied the waters (with some exceptions). How about investing in some solid investigative reporting, and aspiring to higher standards?
Second, let’s start thinking of politics as a long-haul game. When politicians view a longer-term horizon, their motivations change. The imminent threat of forced removal from office leads to an incentive to extract as much as possible now. Take the threat away, and politicians develop a long-term strategy. If the political playing field is open, new players are allowed to come on the horizon in the meantime, and a corrupt politician knows that it may be many terms before he is re-elected (instead of just one term as has been the case in our system so far), so he behaves better in the present.
Third, stop treating the army as a legal political player. We have played a part in propping it up. Consider the reverence with which an ISPR tweet is regarded, and the clamor claiming a coup was on its way last week. It only lends the army legitimacy. Disregard it a bit, and you loosen its grip. (But history has burned us in this regard, so this is easier said than done).
Look, we have suffered injustices. And no one can accuse us of not caring. But that’s no reason to abandon reason altogether. We can’t build better political institutions if we show no respect for the ones we currently have, and if we don’t give the political process its due. It’s time to start using our brains, everywhere — in parliament, on the street, in our homes. Be less dismissive of the other side, try to understand where they come from, and figure out a compromise in the best interest of this country of ours.