It isn’t entirely surprising that people in Pakistan should be questioning the role and the utility of politicians in the governance process. Their record has been sullied, to say the least, for except for Bhutto Senior’s 7 years, they have presided over Pakistan during its most unstable times – 1947-58 and 1988-99. Beyond the memory of these ineffective periods of rule, however, this argument against politicians is entirely superficial, stands on extremely shaky ground, and is the trademark of those who find thinking an extremely arduous and unnecessary task. Here’s why.
First, I would be more than willing to give this argument some tiny measure of credit, were it not for the answer to some simple questions: who does Musharraf have with him? Who is sitting in his puppet Parliament? Who forms the crux of his support in the PML-Q? The simple answer – politicians. If Musharraf were governing alone, as a one-man legislature (not to say he does not come dangerously close to looking like that at most times, given that so much of the Parliament’s work has happened through ordinances in the last 8 years), one may be able to adopt a “general vs. politician” stance. But given that he entrenched himself and his authority through the creation of a “king’s party”, the PML-Q (made up of politicians), and is the President with a Prime Minister and a full Parliament, it is entirely unintelligent to argue that we are at present living without politicians. Therefore, if your worry, at any level, regards what it would mean to have to deal with politicians once again should elections be held or a democratic process initiated, you shouldn’t be too worried because you have been dealing with them since the 2002 election. In fact, you have been dealing with the worst of them – a type of politician who saw it only right to change political parties to maintain personal power, and who saw no issues in selling his/her soul to the devil for a shot at a good ministerial position. Current politicians of the PML-Q abandoned their parties and their principles by the dozens and were in turn rewarded by Musharraf, our one great hope for the cleaning up of politics in this country, through the creation of what is apparently the largest cabinet in the world. It makes sense. If there are so many politicians cutting deals, you might as well have as many ministerial positions as possible to use as awards. So if it’s politicians you are worried about, they have been with us, alive and thriving, for the last 5 years.
Second, and as Musharraf has obviously realised, what would you do without politicians? It is entirely easy to dismiss politicians as an unnecessary complication in the process of governance. But really, how does governance happen without them? By saying that we are unwilling to return to the era of politicians, are we saying that we have in mind a form of governance that does not require the popular, political mandate, that has no need for a parliament (for parliament is, by definition, made up of politicians), and whose entire legislative process (for the politically naive, the process of coming up with laws for the country) is based around one man? We might as well go on then to argue that we should introduce to the world an alternate governance process in which each new Chief of Army Staff automatically becomes the legislature until death do us part. We should also clarify that we feel no real reason to ever have to waste time in ascertaining popular will, and that we have no particular need for being counted in the process of governing a country. We might as well argue for the restoration of a monarchy, or better still, a much closer memory, for a return to colonial rule, under which no one had to bother with trying to determine the difference between a citizen and a subject. This isn’t a far-fetched notion in any sense of the word, for as long as one talks of independence, a constitution and a Parliament, one has to talk of politicians.
This brings us to the third point. Our major worry about politicians is essentially with respect to two particular politicians – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Therefore, our vision of governance in Pakistan is that of a boxing ring, in one corner of which stands Musharraf, and in the other stand Bhutto and Sharif, sometimes holding hands, at other times pushing each other around, and at yet others simply tossing each other over the ropes. Our job as spectators is to choose one side over the other, without ever bothering with the dimensions and construction of the ring, or even with the rules of the game. Our worry is simply the personalities and not the processes that define the parameters of the game. That is why we are able to say which personality/politician/ruler we prefer over another, without sparing a minute to place those people within any framework defined by an ideology, or even a larger process.
The point is simple. If Bhutto or Sharif come to power within a system that has changed little since the last time they were in power, our condemnation for that system need be only slightly less severe than it is for martial law. This is because the system would still be defined by instability, by the need of politicians to dance to the tunes of the army, and by imperatives that require that everyone except the voting populace be kept happy at all costs. Under such a system, our greatest worry would continue to be the army and its complete control over our lives. This debate, therefore, has little to do with personalities or with whether we prefer politicians over military rulers, and has everything to do with the process and form of governance we want to live under as independent, self-respecting citizens of Pakistan.