Once again, there is talk about saving our stunted sapling of democracy from being uprooted. In the middle of war, there’s talk about a military take-over and conjectures about the men-in-khaki pulling the strings of everyone, from Imran Khan to Tahirul Qadri. The debate on democracy is laid out like a board game with black and white pieces and there’s a refusal to read the writing on the wall beyond conspiracies: democracy must come to its own rescue. As things stand, it seems to be digging its grave.
There’s a solution in the book of democracy to every challenge the elected government faces today, yet our damsel of democracy in perpetual distress refuses to read that book. The PML-N government refused to engage the PTI in any meaningful discussion on rigging in the 2013 elections and reforming the system for the future. Its much-delayed constitution of a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms has obviously failed to inspire confidence in Imran Khan who has announced a long march to Islamabad on August 14.
Despite his irresponsible accusations and an equally irresponsible sense of timing for the long march, Imran Khan’s case against rigging is a valid one and needs to be addressed. Evidence that there were serious shortcomings in the conduct of 2013 elections has been piling, but the Nawaz government has refused to treat the matter seriously. The cases in the election tribunals are lingering on and relevant state institutions of Election Commission of Pakistan and NADRA are dragging their feet under pressure from the government.
Is it a wonder then that the PTI is frustrated and ready to take to the streets? Rather than dismissing the long march announced by the PTI as a conspiracy against democracy, shouldn’t the government be exploring democratic ways to address the party’s concerns? In fact, on many other fronts as well, the undemocratic ways of the elected government and the resulting lop-sided priorities, pose the biggest danger to the democratic set-up. The vacuum of democratic governance and leadership is bound to be filled up by other means sooner or later.
The problem with treating democracy as a game of chess is that there are only two sides and you only get to choose one; pro-democracy whites or the anti-democracy blacks. We all know that real-life is more nuanced than that and it comes with a hundred shades of grey. But in the black and white world of our democracy fairy-tale, the military leadership is perpetually pitted against the elected government, and all those challenging the government are made to fit its black ranks. The parties vowing to save the government are all fair, and the PTI is the same dark color as PAT.
Simplistic cries for saving the democratic system actually precipitate its demise. The black and white scenarios shift the focus away from the performance of the elected government and its responsibility to go by the democracy book. By treating it like a tantrum-throwing spoilt brat that is given all the sweets regardless of good (democratic) behavior, our saviors of democracy actually spoil it further and stop it from growing up. The weavers of this black and white narrative on democracy lump together positive challenges to the democratic system that could help us on our journey, with agents of chaos actually out to derail the system. After all, every piece that’s not white has got to be black.
So the politics of Imran Khan who heads the second largest political party in the country and who has proved his intention to work within the system is interpreted in the same terms as that of a dual-national rabble rouser without a single seat in the parliament who descends on Pakistan at crucial times to rock the democracy boat and doesn’t hide his anarchic intentions. It is surprising that while, contrary to all indications, many accuse the shifty cleric of being a pawn of the military establishment, no one bothers to look into his nurturing in imperial capitals and open threats to turn D-Chowk in Islamabad to Tahrir Square, into so many factors that clearly link him to similar agents of chaos unleashed in so many countries by the empire.
The black and white discourse on democracy brackets the two together. It doesn’t seem to matter that Tahirul Qadri is clearly out to bring the house down, while Imran Khan and his PTI have some real weight and a stake in the democratic system and their reservations regarding the 2013 elections, if handled in a democratic way, could help in strengthening the system. By painting both in a black anti-democratic color, and dismissing them both as pawns in the hands of the security establishment, the discourse on saving democracy fails to make the important distinction between issues and leaders that are valid to the democratic process and those that are distractions and out to derail it.
Time and again, we have seen elected governments lose their credibility and popularity due to their undemocratic conduct and anti-people policies. No amount of politically correct theorizing has ever helped such governments. By inventing black and white scenarios that paint the elected government as the victim and everyone challenging its conduct as military-backed villains, the champions of our democracy are actually a hurdle in the progress of our democracy project.
The biggest strength of a democratic system, and therefore an elected government, is popular support and the ability to resolve differences through dialogue. The IMF-driven neo-liberal policies of the government have already eroded its popularity. And its failure to engage the PTI in meaningful dialogue on rigging in the 2013 elections and electoral reforms is pushing it into deeper trouble. And it has no one to blame for the soup it is in but itself.
The problem is not so much with those challenging the authority of the elected government but with the undemocratic ways in which the government has chosen to deal with the challenges they pose. The responsibility for saving the system essentially lies with our damsel of democracy in perpetual distress, our stunted six-year old sapling that should have become a decent-sized plant by now

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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