Hashmi’s swan song
Makhdoom Javed Hashmi delivered his farewell speech to the National Assembly the other day, having resigned his seat (along with his daughter) after leaving the PML-N and joining the PTI. A parliamentary veteran of almost three decades (he began in the partyless 1985 Majlis-e-Shoora of General Ziaul Haq and served the dictator as a minister), Hashmi was given his head by the speaker to say what was in his heart. Hashmi’s speech was of course first and foremost a litany of complaints against the leadership of his erstwhile party, the PML-N. It may be recalled that after the Sharifs opted to accept the offer of going into exile in Saudi Arabia and the PML-N virtually collapsed into a rump party, with the majority of its leaders and members trooping lemming-like into Musharraf’s King’s party, the newly formed PML-Q, it was Hashmi who held the remains of the PML-N together. His defiance of Musharraf landed him in jail on a spurious charge of defaming the military, but he never compromised on his opposition to military rule. Since 2007, when the Sharifs finally returned to the country, he had been sidelined by Nawaz Sharif and company. His departure was therefore the recognisable writing on the wall for some time, the rise of the PTI merely providing the opportunity. But Hashmi did not confine himself to criticism of the PML-N. He delivered a wake-up call to the lawmakers to change their attitude and conduct, which had miserably disappointed the entire nation. He argued that the ruling PPP should concentrate on saving the country rather than the democratic system, although he conceded the right of the incumbents to serve out their full term. However, he advised the prime minister to seek a fresh mandate at the earliest as the present drift had led to the country dying economically and the people deeply disappointed with the demonstrated tendency of the elected members to fill their own pockets instead of serving the electorate. He pleaded for a new Pakistan, for which the sine qua non was the evolution of a new system. An early election, he held, had the potential to bring forth a trustworthy leadership.
Javed Hashmi was echoing what a lot of people have been saying of late. The words ‘change’ and even ‘revolution’ have been ringing out in the political space, particularly since the momentum associated with the rise of the PTI. Unfortunately, though, such is the deterioration in the level of our political discourse (media pundits included) that no one has any clear idea what ‘change’, let alone ‘revolution’ means or entails. First and foremost, it would be instructive to remember that Pakistan’s political energies throughout the 64 years of its existence have been consumed in the struggle for democracy. The resistance to military rule and authoritarian civilian dispensations defines the political history of the country and colours its politics like nothing else. Since 2008, an elected government is in power, but this by now no longer seems enough. The performance of the government on the political, economic and social fronts leaves much to be desired, to put it mildly. Parliament’s performance has been no better, perhaps even worse, bright spots on the legislative horizon such as the 18th Amendment notwithstanding. Taking Hashmi’s nostrums as a starting point, the functionality or otherwise of our assemblies could do with some revisiting. Democracy does not end with free and fair elections. They are only the starting point of the democratic process, whose test lies even more than the polls on the performance of the elected representatives in the assemblies. If these assemblies merely reinforce the notion of ‘parliamentary cretinism’ without answering the expectations and aspirations of their electorate, disillusionment cannot but be the logical outcome. The limited experience of democracy we have points to some ugly features of our political structure and culture. Elected members’ constituency supporters (let alone opponents) constantly complain of the indifference of the members to the problems and plight of the people who voted them in. These members are only available when the next polls roll round. In between, the people are abandoned to their own devices. Even within the paradigm of a parliamentary democracy, there are steps that can be taken to improve the situation and accelerate the march towards a functional, participatory and dynamic democracy. For example, a change of the rules should allow a majority of voters in a particular constituency to recall their elected representative if he or she fails to respond to their needs. The first-past-the-post system could be modified partly to allow party list-based elections on the basis of the overall percentage of votes garnered by a party (an indirect application of this principle is already in use for reserved seats for women, minorities, etc). This would bring people into the assemblies who cannot otherwise challenge the monopoly in the electoral field of landowning clout or money. The disappointment with the hard-earned democracy we have threatens to turn opinion in the direction (once again) of authoritarian or even praetorian dispensations, which have more than been proved disasters for the country. Reform must be undertaken before we reach that point of no return.