Last Sunday, Tahirul Qadri resurfaced at Minar-e-Pakistan after years abroad, his heart bleeding for democracy. He gave an ultimatum to the government to reform the electoral process by January 10, or face a Tahrir Square like situation on January 14. Later on Thursday, the PPP launched its puppet king Bilawal at Garhi Khuda Bux. His well-rehearsed theatrics aside, the young heir to the PPP throne basically repeated his party’s rhetoric on various issues like a good obedient son of his father. To deflect the criticism his party’s government is faced with for botching up the Benazir murder trial, he blamed the judiciary for not punishing his mother’s killers. In another interesting development, the MQM seemed all set for another somersault, its chief threatening from London to join Tahirul Qadri’s rapid revolution and abandon the PPP’s slippery ship of reconciliation after five long years. Are we headed for a smooth transfer of power to the next duly elected government or chaos in the name of changing the system?

There are serious problems with the prescription that Tahirul Qadri is bandying about all over the place these days. His slogan of changing the system is all very well, and his diagnosis of the problems stunting democratic governance and perpetuating the status quo is fairly accurate. At the same time, these ideas are not new and they have been propounded by other political parties and writers for years. In fact, there are political parties that have actually done something about these problems and helped in reforming the system instead of issuing unreasonable ultimatums. On the other hand, Tahirul Qadri’s charade against the ills of the present system comes across more as an excuse that he would like to use to disrupt elections that are now just around the corner. What give the game away are the solutions he has to offer and his methodology. The concoction used to kill mice is 99 percent food and one percent poison. While Tahirul Qadri might be saying all the right things, it is the one percent poison that we should focus on: the operative part of his agenda for change that he’s landed from Canada with.

It doesn’t take a political visionary to come up with the critique of the system presented by Tahirul Qadri, a cleverly executed cut-and-paste exercise that pieces together issues raised by various political parties as well as the democracy-discourse in the electronic and print media. While debate on the problems of democracy has contributed towards a more discerning electorate, various political initiatives have led to at least some of the much-needed reforms in the system. The PTI fought its case against bogus votes before the Supreme Court. The new updated electoral lists have been purged of millions of bogus votes and a large number of young voters, hitherto disenfranchised, have been added to it. The Awami Workers Party approached the Supreme Court for campaign finance reforms, seeking to curb campaign activities requiring large funds and illegal spending by candidates. The Election Commission has been given guidelines by the Supreme Court to tackle the problem in consultation with the political parties. The Commission is also expected to start voter-verification in Karachi and delimitation of constituencies in the city as directed by the Supreme Court.

Even the established political parties in the parliament that are criticized for much of what is wrong with our democracy have taken important steps for making elections more credible. The Election Commission of Pakistan is no longer a tool in the hands of the government and top officials to the important institution are appointed by consensus between the government and the opposition. Thanks to the 20th amendment, a similar consensus-based procedure has to be followed for the appointment of the caretaker prime minister. The Election Commission has made intra-party elections mandatory for political parties wishing to contest elections. Earlier, the PTI created an impetus for democracy within political parties by kicking off its initiative for intra-party elections from Islamabad. Independent institutions, new political parties, fresh thinking in some old ones, and an electorate more aware of issues and opinions, are factors that point towards an electoral exercise that will not only have more credibility but also be more authentic as compared to earlier elections.

This is not to suggest that every hurdle in the way of democratic governance has been sorted out. However, the shortcut suggested by Tahirul Qadri, to be implemented by a caretaker set-up with absolute authority and an indefinite tenure, does not inspire confidence. He doesn’t say how exactly he would like the government to reform the electoral process, but he’s already given a very short deadline for the task, threatening to descend on Islamabad with millions of his followers if the government didn’t listen to him. And though the government is expected to consult its coalition partners and the PML-N is consulting other opposition parties to nominate the caretaker prime minister, Tahirul Qadri would like the army and the judiciary to have a say in it as well. Yet he says he’s fighting for democracy and the constitution. More than electoral reforms, his Tahirul Qadri’s sight seems to be fixed on an interim setup with an indefinite tenure. What makes it worse is that he wants to force it down everyone’s throats by conjuring up a congregation from thin air without a movement on the ground.

Imran Khan who, for years, has been saying the things that have suddenly dawned upon Tahirul Qadri, has gone around the country mobilizing opinion on these issues, creating alternative policy and organizing a party around modern democratic ideals. While criticizing the system, he has worked within the constitution to improve it, and his party cadre is gearing up for national elections to bring about a change in line with the party’s ideals. Contrast this with Tahirul Qadri’s rapid revolution, to be brought about by a horde with no political background, clueless about how the system is supposed to change and in what way, looking up to their leader as a messiah descended from the skies. How is that different from the workers brought to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh for the crowning of Bilawal? How does Tahirul Qadri hope to change things in alliance with the MQM that has been a part of every government and represents the status quo more than any other political party, regardless of its anti-feudal rhetoric?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a political party wishing to change the system, even the constitution. The problem with Tahirul Qadri’s call to arms is that it bypasses the political process and threatens to hijack a raised public consciousness to unknown and chaotic ends.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: