Dharna Politics: Do Ends Justify the Means?

In May 2013, I along with many other Pakistanis weary of a system steeped in corruption, bribery and dynastic politics supported Imran Khan’s bid for power through the general elections. I was deeply critical of his stance on the Taliban, the War on Terror and absence of a clear political ideology but nevertheless felt that his financial incorruptibility and integrity would be a welcome change from the clientelist politics of PPP and PML-N. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that Imran Khan would win by a clear majority because his appeal was largely restricted to upwardly mobile urban middle and upper classes as evidenced by a report by Gallup Pakistan. Moreover, it was highly unlikely that PPP’s and PML-N’s historic stronghold over Sindh and Punjab respectively would be destroyed in the course of a single election. This view was confirmed by opinion polls and surveys prior to the election. Nevertheless, I hoped that Imran Khan would emerge strong enough to form part of a national coalition. That didn’t happen. I was disappointed but not entirely surprised and after making a series of embarrassingly elitist comments regarding the ‘illiterate masses’ I moved on. That is how a democracy works. In a system of one person one vote, all opinions count equally -even if some of them are loud enough to dominate the public space through dharnas while others quietly follow old political affiliations. Moreover, in a democracy we have to be open to the possibility that politicians we think are ill suited for leadership may get elected and we must respect the mandate of the people if democracy is to flourish.

It is the latter aspect of democracy that is apparently difficult for many PTI followers to digest with most translating any critique of Imran Khan’s tactics as support for corrupt veteran politicians. The situation only deteriorated with PMl-N’s refusal to implement timely electoral reforms, address electoral irregularities and not to mention the horrifying Model Town massacre that gave an undemocratic opportunist like Tahir ul Qadri a place on the table. But the Azaadi March and PTI’s single minded pursuit of Nawaz Sharif’ resignation has lost many people with its convoluted ‘logic’. The claim that PML-N’s victory was engineered through massive rigging has not been corroborated by independent sources like the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), the EU Elections Observer Mission and the National Democratic Institute. Undoubtedly, there were irregularities and causes for concern. But electoral law violations do not automatically translate to rigging at the scale needed to manufacture a landslide victory. There is no ground for demanding a resignation in the absence of any judicial opinions or evidence from non partisan experts. PTI is trying to set a dangerous precedent by insisting that elected governments can be declared illegitimate and toppled on the basis of street power.

Another issue that is repeatedly and irrelevantly raised by PTI fans is that of Nawaz Sharif’s political corruption. Let us be clear that the issue of Nawaz Sharif using his political power for illegitimate private gain is separate and distinct from that of alleged electoral rigging. PTI needs to decide why it wants Sharif to resign. Is it because he does not have the mandate of the people or because he is financially corrupt? Both allegations should be deliberated and decided by the judiciary and independent sources. Twenty thousand people (or even five hundred thousand people as claimed by PTI) gathered on the street cannot be the judge, jury and the executioner. A common counter argument to this is the claim that the judiciary and in fact the entire system is corrupt and cannot be fixed as long as the old timers are in power. Fine. There might even be something to this argument. But then you need to stop thumping your chest about democracy. A more intellectually honest argument would state that democracy is ill-suited for a country like Pakistan with its massive illiteracy and systemic corruption and nepotism. Under a democratic system people will continue to elect seasoned politicians who have no stake in fixing the system. We need an honest leader like Imran Khan to weed out the rampant corruption and build a utopian ‘Naya’ Pakistan.

Ironically this cult worship centered on a larger than life hero expects the latter to act outside the system to repair it while at the same time preserve democracy. It is rather like a military dictator dismissing an elected government on charges of corruption with promises to restore democracy when conditions are more ‘suitable’. Aren’t we all familiar with that line of thinking? You may even support this standpoint and claim that a benevolent dictator is better than a corrupt elected leader. But you have to be honest enough to acknowledge that such a stance cannot be packaged as democracy.

PTI followers need to decide if the ends, that of having an incorruptible leader, justify the means, that is derailing the democratic process. And they need to consider the long term consequences of their Azaadi March. Their pressure tactics have already set the civilian-military relations back by at least twenty years. For the first time since Z.A Bhutto civilian leadership had managed to gain some control over foreign policy. The Azaadi March has effectively wreaked that and put the military back in control. Even if Imran Khan gets his much desired resignation, a mid term election and by some stretch of imagination a clear electoral victory, PTI tactics would have done irreparable damage to democratic institutions with their in-built mechanism for rooting out corrupt and unpopular leaders in a sustainable and institutionalized manner. Our problems are too deep rooted to be magically solved by one lone savior. And thanks to PTI’s recent maneuvers which have set a dangerous precedent of successfully using street power for political gain, elected leaders for some time to come (including Imran Khan) will be left looking over their shoulders while remaining deeply subservient to the military establishment. For many people that is too high a price to pay. It is time we acknowledge that while we may admire Imran Khan’s integrity and desire his leadership the latter is not possible at the moment through democratic means.

A version of this article was published in Dawn (website) on 26th August 2014



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