All appears to be well in the Land of the Pure. We are told that the many-headed hydra of Islamist militancy has finally been confronted, with it only being a matter of time, rather than commitment, before it is permanently vanquished. We are also told that there will be no tolerance for bigotry and sectarianism, and that the merchants of hate who have long plied their trade in this country will no longer be welcome. In Karachi, the misfortunes of the MQM and the PPP are provided as evidence of a long overdue reckoning, with the campaign against corruption and political malfeasance looking set to expand beyond the borders of Sindh. As the nation awaits the influx of money and investment associated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, reports of peace and quiescence in Balochistan seem to suggest that even that most intractable of problems appears close to resolution.

Reading and watching the news these past few weeks has been a surreal experience tied together by the different-but-similar metaphors that have been used to describe the contemporary political milieu. Swamps are being drained, fields are being weeded, and all the right steps are apparently being taken to put Pakistan on the path to prosperity. For all of this we are instructed to be grateful to the military and the role it has played this past year. At the same time, the civilian political leadership, in its various manifestations, has been relentlessly pilloried and attacked for its innumerable failings, ranging from an inability to deliver governance to criminal incompetence. Rampant jingoism masquerading as enthusiastic, patriotism has replaced reasoned political debate, and the message being sent is clear; the military has, once again, saved Pakistan from the dubious ministrations of its civilian politicians.

There are obvious problems with this narrative, some of which have been discussed in this column before; draconian anti-terror laws, secretive military courts, forced disappearances, and summary executions by drone strike are hardly the hallmarks of a progressive society defined by a respect for human rights and civil liberties, just as crackdowns on corruption and ethno-national militancy have, all too often, been pretexts for campaigns of political victimization that do little to address underlying structural issues. There is also the fact that, for all the pages that have allegedly been turned, events seem to be following an all too familiar script; the trading of barbs with India, the knee-jerk implication of ‘foreign’ powers in all that goes awry within our borders, the demonization of democratic politics, the de jure and de facto policing of dissent, and the disturbing impunity still enjoyed by many of the purveyors of religious extremism, all point towards a continuation of business as usual.

Yet, despite the existence of these serious concerns and questions, it is strange to see so many ‘liberal’ commentators unquestioningly and uncritically endorsing what has become the dominant narrative about the direction this country is taking. Faced with a civilian government and political parties that have done little to justify the trust reposed in them by the electorate, many have come to endorse the notion that a little military-led spring cleaning is a good idea. As long as corruption is eliminated and terrorism is tackled, the argument goes, Pakistan will benefit. Therefore, when given a choice between a government that does too little and a military that, perhaps, does too much, the latter becomes a more appealing prospect.

There is perhaps no word that is as misunderstood and misused as ‘liberal’ in Pakistan, with the term often being used to describe a range of political orientations and positions that would, in practice, lump Lenin and Mao together with Hayek and Friedman. Definitional quibbles aside, however, it is clear that what passes for ‘liberal’ political opinion in Pakistan has historically been far too comfortable with the notion of authoritarian rule and control. While there are obviously exceptions who should be lauded for their consistent defense of democratic principles, far too many seem to prioritize an illusory sense of security over any broader commitment to human freedom and dignity.

This is important because, sans a truly democratic and participatory political settlement, any stability that comes to Pakistan is unlikely to be sustainable. The history of this country is replete with ‘strong’ men in uniform utterly failing in their endeavors to make things better and, indeed, often leaving the country in a state worse than what they inherited. In a context where poverty, inequality, and a lack of representation underpin constant distributional conflict, and where grievances have been generated and nurtured by the perpetuation of a deeply unfair political and economic system that has served to strengthen different elites – propertied, religious, and ethnic – it is hopelessly naïve to believe that force alone will be sufficient to bring about radical, long-term change.

What, then, is to be done? After all, it would be ludicrous to believe that the current civilian leadership possesses the necessary wherewithal to compensate for its obvious shortcomings. Here, however, it becomes necessary to jettison the binary logic that suggests the only alternative to a flawed democracy is a benevolent dictatorship. In other parts of the world, for example, civilian governments seem to get along just fine with their militaries, with both discharging their constitutionally defined roles. While it would be correct to point out that civilian governments elsewhere are not quite as poor as ours, it could be argued that the self-correcting mechanisms for accountability that are inherent to democracy have already stared to manifest themselves in Pakistan; the noises being made about electoral reform, the passage of the 18th and 20th amendments, the vibrancy of the media and the courts, and the debate and discussion over local government, all are examples of the incremental but important steps that are being taken towards strengthening this country’s democratic institutions. Democracy is a process, not an event, and it needs time to mature before it can really start to deliver.

That does not mean that the PML-Ns, PPPs, and PTIs of the world should be given a free pass to do as they please. Instead, they should absolutely be held accountable for their failings, and should be subjected to relentless critique. More importantly, rather than turning to the military for solutions it may not be equipped to provide, it makes sense to build support for radical alternatives to the status quo, with parties like the Awami Workers Party, as well as a plethora of unions and civil society organisations, demonstrating how it could be possible to envisage a democratic Pakistan defined by a commitment to improving the lives of the majority rather than a small minority. That is the key to Pakistan’s long-term growth and security.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk