Dr Mohammad Tahirul Qadri’s appearance in Pakistan is likened to a figurative example of “setting the cat among the pigeons”, but the question is who has set this angry cat among Pakistan’s political pigeons causing a commotion that has never been seen before in our history. The frightened pigeons can be seen fluttering their wings in the trap with ‘feathers’ flying all over. Shaykh-ul-Islam seems to have emerged what Plato once described his esteemed mentor Socrates as ‘gadfly’ of the state who irritated the Athenian men of status quo by invoking issues of justice, law and goodness. Qadri too has irritated the men and, perhaps, a few ancestrally empowered, but heavily coated and painted women of status quo in Pakistan.

Nothing goes off suddenly; even the earthquakes set in motion from the depth of the earth to the rooftops of villages.” This line from a poem written decades ago by a renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti best depicts the long-brewing frustration in Pakistan over the politics of ‘loot and plunder’ that Dr Qadri now comes to challenge. He wants the people to topple the corrupt political hierarchy as the Egyptians did in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. No matter what our myopic rulers think of him, he certainly is riding a popular rage that cannot be contained by sealing Islamabad with containers.

In the last five years, the state of Pakistan has come to a total paralysis. The current situation in the country including target killings in Karachi, ethnic carnage in Quetta, countrywide lawlessness, food and energy shortages, unabated violence and extremism, socio-economic chaos, industrial breakdown, trade and production slowdown and human misery are proof enough of total absence of governance or governmental authority. Crime and corruption are rampant. There is no rule of law or accountability in any form. The federal and provincial governments without exception have proven non-consequential on issues of economy and public safety.

No wonder, there are calls now for the army to come and protect them. The politicians cannot even organise and conduct elections without the army’s help. What kind of governance can be expected from a bunch of NRO beneficiaries? This is a pathetic show of civilian bankruptcy in statecraft and requisite competence in “strategic guidance and planning.” No doubt, the country with total institutional disarray is going through a serious crisis of governance. Even worse, the government and its corrupt leaders have no credibility whatsoever, domestically as well as externally.

One thing is clear. The change that people want will never come through elections under the present rotten system. Qadri’s call for change comes as a ray of light at the end of the dark political black hole in which they are trapped. They are for the first time hearing someone speaking their mind and calling for change that they have been waiting for too long. They are joining him in throngs because they are sick and tired of the system that has given them nothing, but hardship and misery. They are looking for an end to the continuing crisis with gross inadequacies in governmental handling of serious problems affecting the common man.

The problem is that the overbearing feudal, tribal and elitist power structure in Pakistan has been too deeply entrenched to let any systemic change take place. It does not suit them. They have always resisted reform in the country, which they fear will erode their vested power and influence base. They make amendments in the constitution for self-serving reasons only. Now that Qadri has questioned their eligibility for election under Articles 62 and 63, they are already contemplating new amendments to legitimise their constitutional ‘ineligibilities’, as they did in the 20th Amendment by legalising the membership of 28 ‘lawmakers’ whose election in by-polls had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court.

Our politicians’ sole concern now is for next elections to go ahead uninterrupted so that they can get a new mandate for another term of loot and plunder. If experience is any lesson, elections in Pakistan are never issue-specific. They are just a renewed licence for the continuation of status quo based on power and privilege. The people are fed up with this political merry-go-round, and are now desperately looking for an alternative with integrity and credibility with a blueprint and an able team to remake the state of Pakistan. There is none yet among the ‘traditional’ politicians to inspire hope for change. They are all status quo people.

Indeed, we have a total void of political leadership. The volcanic situation in Balochistan, the mayhem in Karachi, the scary Afghan endgame, and growing Indo-US nexus in the region with serious implications for Pakistan’s legitimate interests are all a ghastly scenario for Pakistan’s security and survival. Elections will lead us nowhere, except prolonging the nation’s drift in agonising uncertainty. Democracy is not all about elections. If that was so, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or North Korea’s successive hereditary Presidents (one does not even remember their names) would be rated the most democratic leaders in the world.

Our own experience in elections has been rather unsavoury. The only ‘free and fair’ election in our history was the one in December 1970, and it cost us half the country. Every subsequent election brought no change in the lives of the people. Even the NRO-led 2008 election did not go beyond unleashing a corrupt ‘democracy’s revenge’ upon the nation. The people voted for change, but the change never came. The people remain prisoners of an exploitative system. The country is still struggling for genuine democracy.

Ours is the story of a society that has been going round and round in aimless circles for 65 years with no genuine democracy, rule of law or good governance.

Instead of removing our systemic weaknesses and reinforcing the unifying elements of nationhood, our ‘professional’ politicians have always succumbed to narrowly-based self-serving temptations. They have invariably proven to be corrupt, interested only in maintaining their political power and securing their own interests or those of their elite fraternity, not of the people whom they claim to represent. Our present rulers have been amply tested and inspire no hope. The miseries of the poor and the underprivileged are only aggravating.

It is this status quo of political morbidity that Dr Tahirul Qadri now threatens to bring to an end. Whatever his personal motives or long-term endgame, by giving a loud wake-up call, he has stormed the bastion of political power and greed. He has challenged the rotten system in which the same feudalised or elitist oligarchy consisting of different men at different times under different political flags has kept the nation hostage with or without military collusion since independence. It has been a long tragedy of errors. The script is the same. Only the faces have been changing. Ours is a bizarre version of democracy.

Unfortunately, when the gravest of problems stare us in the face, we tend to ignore them only because we cannot do anything about them. As an expression of our helplessness, we like to carry on with life as usual, at times even ridiculing those who speak of the need for things to be set right. In our own ostrich mentality, we like to see anyone speaking of change as being out of mind if not accusing him or her of being a foreign agent or heretic. This is a rabid ‘status quo’ mentality that will perennially keep us out of step with the fast changing world.

The need for drastic change in our own mindset is urgent to get rid of the same old usurpers of the country’s politics, outmoded social and political structures and elitist-led status quo. There is still time for all stakeholders to come together and prepare a national agenda for a new, strong, stable, peaceful, tolerant and genuinely democratic Pakistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: shamshad2001@hotmail.com