This week, Pakistan celebrates its 71st anniversary of independence, members of a new Parliament take their respective oaths of office, a new Prime Minister will be sworn in, new cabinets will be formed (at the Federal and Provincial level), and new sense of promise and purpose will replace the tested (and discarded) hegemony of two political parties (read: two political families).
There is no real way of describing the simultaneous sense of hope and fear that will be ushered into our collective national ethos, this week. Hope for a strong, safe, progressive and corruption-free Pakistan that (the untested) Imran Khan has promised. And fear that if Imran fails to deliver on his promised vision, there will be no place for the people to go, except back into the tainted embrace of ‘mujhe kiyo’n nikala’ or Mr. 10%.
But for this moment, during this week of Independence, let us break tradition with the politics of despondency, and recount why this is a time for hope.
Ignoring all the nay-sayers in our polity, who keep insisting that ‘this country cannot be fixed’, let us pause to take stock of the fact that, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, we will have a democratic government that is neither Muslim League, nor people’s party. For the first time in our (interrupted) democratic history of the past forty years (since 1970), neither a Bhutto/Zardari nor a Sharif will be at the helm of affairs. In a system of government (i.e. democracy), which is built on the premise of plurality, this must be seen as a welcomed development. At the very least, new ideas and perspectives will find space in our policy narrative.
Next: for the first time in our history, we will have a political government that neither draws its strength from Punjab (as was the case with PML(N)) nor from Sindh (as did PPP). Instead, a political party that has its centre of power in KPK, will now also reign in the centre. Two larger provinces will have to look towards KPK-centric forces for decision making. And maybe Peshawar will get the sort of attention that Lahore got during Sharif rule, and Karachi got during the Zardari years.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that this government is being formed in the shadow of the first-ever corruption disqualification and conviction of a Prime Minister (who was the very embodiment of status quo power), during the incumbency of his own democratic government. Importantly, this disqualification and conviction did not happen through military courts, or during martial-law regime. Instead, the ‘regular’ constitutional process and civilian courts, aided by institutions such as NAB, FIA, SECP and the SCP, resulted in Nawaz Sharif’s removal from power. Consequently, for the first time in recent memory, members of our government will know that none of them are above the law, and none can escape the gates of accountability. If Nawaz Sharif – despite all the King’s horses and all the King’s men – could be caught for having assets beyond lawful source of income, then each and every member of this government will surely be weighed and measured on the same standards.
Also, for the first time (in a long time), our institutions have asserted themselves above individuals. Gone are the days when political party leaders could thunder “NAB Chairman ki kiya majaal”! Gone are the days of Qamar Zaman’s NAB or Zafar Hijazi’s SECP. Supported by a resurgent Court, these institutions no longer exist at the behest of one individual or family in power. NAB notices have been served to PML(N) Ministers, PPP leaders, and PTI officials alike. And as PTI takes the reins of power, thus become the custodian of our National Exchequer, institutions like the FIA and NAB are likely to focus an increased attention of their workings and transparency.
Equally important is recognition of the fact that nature abhors (political) vacuum. When bad governance of the past many years failed to provide people with basic amenities – clean water, pure food, unadulterated medication, quality health facilities, and a functional education system – institutions like the honourable Supreme Court stepped in to stem the rot, and place responsibility on delinquent individuals. But, admittedly, these are not functions that should, in the ‘regular’ course of business, be performed by the honourable Court. Now, as the new government comes to power, its members will have to step up to the challenge (even if it is out of fear of the honorable Court), and take steps that fill the void created by decades of ignored social-sector reform agenda.
The most immediate and critical example, in this regard, is the looming water crisis, and the resultant focus on water conservation and dams construction. Up until a few months ago, when the honourable Supreme Court took cognizance of matters such as Katas Raj case and construction of Bhasha/Mohmand Dams, water conservation did not find any notable mention in our governance narrative. During the past many months and years, successive governments failed to make water conservation a national imperative; not even when more than a hundred children in Thar died of drought. Despite the ad nausea repetition of political political sloganeering – from ‘mujhe kiyo’n nikala’ to ‘Vote ko izzat do’ – no major political statement or policy initiative, concerning the water crisis, was taken during the past ten years. The concerned officials in the government seemed too busy trying to engineer their perpetuation in power, to be concerned with issues such as periodic droughts in a large fraction of our territorial expanse.
Such lapses cannot be tolerated anymore. We have no time or space for self-serving governance models in this country anymore. We have no patience for such custodians of our democracy. And the upcoming PTI government should be well aware of this imperative.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by our country, there is reason to celebrate ‘hope’, on this 14th August. There is reason to celebrate a departure from the self-serving politics of our past, and put stock in the ability of a new government to redeem their electoral pledges. And so, let us welcome this week, and this independence day celebration, with two promises: 1) that we will put aside the political baggage of our past, and participate in our civic responsibilities with a renewed sense of hope and optimism; and 2) that if the PTI’s government fails to deliver on their promises, we will be the first to (in the words of Thomas Jefferson) “throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.