The democratic process in Pakistan has completed its second consecutive term (ten years), for the first time in the country’s history. And even a cursory glance at the performance of the past ten years of democratic governance would reveal that something terribly disturbing rots at the heart of our democratic enterprise.
Between dried up water resources, empty financial reserves, rising inflation, rampant employment, deplorable education and healthcare standards, and a feeble sense of public safety, something is rotten in the manner that our democratic governance operates. What precisely is it? A simplified answer, in one word, is: corruption!
The more important questions, however, are ‘how did we come to this?’ and ‘how can we find our our way out of this mess?’
Piercing through the quagmire of excuses such as corrupt politicians, acute illiteracy, scarce resources and incoherent policies, let us state the problem with precision: the generation that is at the helm of the affairs of our nation today, has failed us. Be it sclerotic bureaucrats, adventurous generals, holier-than-thou judges, or power-hungry politicians… This has been a generation of disappointment! And this failure is especially tragic because of the opportunities that they have squandered along the way.
History bears witness to the fact that this was the promised generation. They were the chosen ones. Born to parents who toiled for the miraculous creation of Pakistan, this generation grew up in Ayub Khan’s ‘decade of development’; when Pakistan was an emerging, progressive and peaceful nation. They were the youth that rallied behind Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, across countless dusty fields throughout our land. They learnt the virtue of casting-off the yolk of authoritarianism, and embracing democracy instead. Their formative years were inebriated with the elixir of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’, during an era that was imbibed in a passionate romance with socialism. They bore witness to the message of Zou Enlai. They were led by Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, towards the creation of a classless society. They sat with Faiz sahab and learnt from Jalib.
And then: enter Zia-ul-Haq.
As the military boots of Zia marched onto the stage, accompanied by whips of intolerance and lashes of fundamentalism, this generation cowered into defeat. Not that they struggled and lost against the forces of extremism and a culture of corruption… instead, they ignominiously surrendered without a fight. Civil liberties were replaced with shackles of conservatism. Democratic ideals were replaced with a twisted interpretations of national security. And progressive governance standards were replaced with the perversion of a corrupt ruling elite.
Some members of that generation (including many who are still relevant in Pakistan’s politics today) joined the ranks and parliament of Zia, when provided with that opportunity, and served him loyally till the end. And the handful that struggled during Zia’s regime, soon lost their way in the post-Zia era. As this generation graduated to the ranks of leadership, it became consumed by the petty politics of the 1990s. Instead of working towards collective national improvement, members of this generation decided to engage in personal aggrandisement. Almost overnight, a new breed of uber-wealthy status quo emerged. The sugar-mill owners, the textile tycoons and the land-grabbers together constructed a democratic matrix that benefited them alone. And the ‘common man’, the real master of our constitutional democracy, was left to beg for scraps off the table this corrupt mafia.
History has now deposited this dark legacy at the doorstep of a new generation – the youth of today. A generation that must find the courage to depart from the footsteps of our fathers, in pursuit a treacherous journey to the Promised Land. And despite voices of despair – telling us ‘yeh mulk theek nahi ho sakta’ – there can be no shrinking away from this responsibility.
Where do we start? A good starting point will perhaps be to recognise the gravity of our circumstances, accept the mistakes of the past, and call the enemy by its name. Corrupt polity has a loaded gun to our head. The time – if there was any – for minced words and empty gestures has now passed. As Dante Alighieri once said, “the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”
While this new generation is not in the driving seat of our nation (yet), its responsibility towards the future of Pakistan is already accruing. If the leaders have decided to resist financial accountability at every step, we must force their hand! Through our voice, our actions… and the ballot! With a fierce belief that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice! Restraint in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!
Our destiny, at this critical juncture of national history, is not of our own choosing. We did not foresee, nor did we prepare for, a deprecation of the political State structure. We did not expect, nor did we invite, a confrontation with evil of corruption. But now that it is upon us, we must rise to master this moment.
And this task – while Herculean – is not impossible. History is a testament to the fact that national destinies have been shaped (even re-written) through the dedication and resolve of one generation – FDR’s generation in the US, Mao’s generation in China, and Mahathir’s generation in Malaysia.
The only question, then, is: are we that generation? And in case we are, our choice in the coming election must reflect that resolve.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.