A party manifesto for the changing times by Mohammad Waseem
Politics in Pakistan is at a dead end. If political parties do not respond to the changing times, their popularity and credibility will further go down. Pakistan faces multiple problems: in the realm of foreign policy, Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s withdrawal syndrome has been reduced to filling the gaps. There is no comprehensive strategy in place as extremists get slowly sucked into the militant phenomenon of the IS in Iraq and Syria. Islamabad seems to be growing out of Pervez Musharraf’s bilateral approach to India-Pakistan relations surrounding the Kashmir issue.
At the other end, the economic policy of the Nawaz Sharif government has yet to make a breakthrough, despite the confidence of the donors abroad. It cannot boast of a steady flow of FDI. Karachi remains in the grip of street violence on a daily basis. While the Fata operation continues, various terrorist organisations, and their publications and training activities continue elsewhere.
There is a general profile of a governability crisis in Pakistan in 2014. As opposed to mobilisation of multiple social contenders of power, an intrusive and assertive electronic media, an independent judiciary and a social media-savvy youth, the style of politics and government has not moved beyond the 1990s. There is a growing disconnect between the state and society. The prevalent model is government by patronage, not by policy. Take the low-cost housing schemes, laptop distribution among students and the loan scheme for youth. A policy is broad-based, universal in impact and open-ended in time scale. Patronage is targeted and geared towards an actual or potential constituency of the party-in-government — the PML-N in Punjab or the PPP in Sindh.
What is the impact of a patronage-oriented political approach? It is the transfer of resources from the lower classes to the middle class, from the rural sector to the urban sector and from the underdeveloped regions to the developed regions. All talk from all parties is about alleviation of poverty. All actions from all governments at the federal and provincial levels are geared towards increasing income inequality, at least by default.
The educated and professional middle classes, the media and civil society are disdainful about dynastic leadership. There is a different frame of mind now, three decades after the 1980s. With two Sharifs already in charge of two governments in Islamabad and Lahore, younger Sharifs have been inducted into politics, disregarding its negative fallout. Acceptance of a Punjabi political dynasty outside Punjab is an even greater challenge.
The lesson for the PPP is that one Bhutto-Zardari is enough rather than two Zardaris operating at the same time. People are getting more opinionated and self-respecting. There is a slow erosion of the cult of leadership, be it the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif, the PPP’s Asif Zardari or the ANP’s Asfandyar Wali Khan. The currently passive and docile audience of the leadership’s public sermons may not last for long.
Imran Khan has garnered support from amongst the fatigued leader-worshippers. He is himself susceptible to erosion of his personality cult. His no-policy-no-ideology politics is sustained by his status as a national hero. While he mobilised people for his sit-in in Islamabad and public meetings in other cities, his campaign needs to win over non-PTI elements to become a national movement.
At the heart of the current political unrest is the absence of a dynamic role of Parliament. There is no visible presence of the leaders of the House and their cabinets on the floor of legislatures. Activation of the pivotal role of elected assemblies will take politics away from the street. It is time that the government shares the floor with opposition parties through an open debate. The government should choose its own platform for defining its objectives and means. It should defuse the opposition pressure through the question-and-answer sessions on the floor. This would reactivate public debate on policy. There is a dire need to bring policy back to the centre stage of politics. Governments in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta should concentrate on policy as the basic instrument of governance. There is need to move away from rhetoric about development (PML-N), sacrifices (PPP), revolution (PAT), change of system (PTI) and permanent victimhood (MQM). Concrete achievements during the past one year and a clear statement of deliverables during the remaining years of the mandate should be clearly outlined. Let us move from hyperbole to the realpolitik.
But can all this be possible? Party thinking is at a standstill. Parties suffer from a lack of intellectual input because there are no thinkers’ forums in their ranks worth the name. Where they do exist — in the JI, the ANP, and even the mainstream and minuscule parties — they do not shape policy. The PPP, which once boasted of a large number of intellectuals and ideologues, is anything but a thinking party now. Ironically, in his speech in Karachi, Bilawal Bhutto announced his adherence to Bhuttoism, which was, in fact, a coinage of anti-Bhutto forces in a negative spirit. The PPP’s cult of masses — awam — and the pretty worn-out four-fold slogan can be considered an alibi for lack of policy and vision. The break-up of the MQM’s alliance with the PPP government in Sindh reflects its muddled thinking. While the MQM can still boast of a vibrant culture of intellectual circles in the party, the mainstream parties have been typically reduced to their landlord hulk.
The general paucity of intellect in political parties is reflected through their media policy. The PML-N’s spokespersons on TV channels are typically, if not in every case, inept in bolstering their party’s profile. There are even fewer credible defendants of the PPP. The PTI’s media spokespersons are thrustful but unbounded by a disciplined political idiom. The JI’s moralist discourse is cushioned by a pragmatic approach to alliance politics. Instead of political parties using the media, it is the media that uses political parties.
Political parties face some formidable challenges: an informed public looking for a policy-based administration; widening income inequalities; the issue of dynasticism; gradual erosion of the cult of leadership as a thing of the past; parliamentary politics without a pivotal role for parliament; absence of policy as the centrepiece of the discourse; lack of focus on deliverables; intellectual barrenness of leaders and cadres; and streamlining a viable media policy.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 9th, 2014.