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Reforming Politics

by Ejaz Haider

Farooq Naeem—AFP

There is no easy fix to the problems facing the democratic process in Pakistan

Eminent economist and former deputy chairman Planning Commission (now a ministry), Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque penned an article on Aug. 14 in Pakistan Today captioned: “… and what is the PM [sic] term?”

Dr. Haque raised some basic questions apropos of the narrative besieged former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is trying to build, face as he does accountability references following his disqualification and, in that sense, is fighting for his political life. But we shall come to that later.

Haque refutes the claim that there’s any fixed term for a P.M. in a parliamentary democracy. He rubbishes the idea that a parliament must necessarily complete its five-year term. He scoffs at the idea of terming a system ‘democracy’ where dynastic rule is the basis for running political parties, local governments are a sham, even when they exist in form, and there’s no effort or at least ‘chatter’ for reform.

Haque also argues for shorter parliament terms, four years, as he puts it and gives us examples from the United Kingdom and neighboring India where, despite five-year terms for parliament, not all parliaments have completed their full, outer-limit terms.

In most of this he is right. In fact, what he says is a no-brainer. The Constitution lays down five years as the outer limit for Parliament. What that means is that no Parliament can go beyond five years. It does not say that a Parliament must stay in business for five years. There’s no fixed tenure for a prime minister. The Constitution does not say that X, having been elected P.M. has security of tenure for the five-year term of that Parliament. And yes, just like Haque, I noted some years ago that Parliament’s term should be reduced to four years.

Haque is also correct in stressing how the absence of functional—as opposed to currently existing dysfunctional—local governments makes a hash of the entire idea of participatory democracy.

He also lists some reforms that can be undertaken. In fact, he has a book out, Looking Back: How Pakistan Became an Asian Tiger by 2050, which details many of the ideas he has been expounding over decades. [NB: this is not a review of his book but a cursory attempt to put some of the ideas contained in his op-ed in a context.]

As noted above, Haque is right in much of what he says, but he is also wrong, not wrong-wrong but wrong in the sense of losing contact with the context in which things either happen or, more importantly, do not.

Put another way, one can have a perfectly sensible, rational idea which, if everyone were rational, would be right in everyone’s face and yet most episodes of history are graveyards of perfectly sensible ideas. Everyone is not rational, no matter what the economists might say. Context is important and the reformer might just be ahead of his time. Add to that multiple motives of the actors involved, structural constraints, the trajectory of events, the divisions in a society, the immediacy of the circumstances, the need for survival et cetera, and we realize the obstacles in the way of perfectly sensible ideas and courses of action.

Who would think today that Galileo was wrong? Or that the idea of burning heretics (probably someone found with a book of mathematics or physics) and witches for the greater glory of God was a sensible thing to do? Or foot-binding was a revered custom? Or slave labor survived the American Declaration of Independence and Man’s dignity, freedom and honor, and apartheid against the blacks survived even the Civil War? Examples abound.

Conversely, Sharif is wrong, but he is also right. Not right-right but in the sense that he was a perp yesterday of what he is a victim of today. His narrative is not grounded in a framework that can dissociate itself from his circumstances, perch high and encompass the complexity in a single, sweeping glance like Yeats’ chinamen carved in Lapis Lazuli. He is stuck in a morass, partly of his own making. He has a limited view of a man in a hole and that view doesn’t go beyond the immediate requirement of how he can get out of the hole. It’s quite another thing that given many other factors, not least his own dynastic parochialism, he never thought or would have along the lines that Haque is suggesting. He is a politician. His idea of ‘reform’ is a mix of tar and concrete, money pork-barreled to win the next election.

But Haque is right: reform is crucial. The question is, how does it come about?

Karl Popper had an interesting take on reforms. He called it social engineering and put it in two categories: piecemeal engineering and utopian social engineering. The first was good, the second, bad. The first happened in a democracy, the second in a dictatorship. Utopian engineering was predicated on redrawing an entire society, canvas cleaning, the sort of thing we saw in the communist countries. The piecemeal approach, on the other hand, attempts to identify core problem areas and working in those areas. There’s a sense of the incremental about it.

Is that how things evolve, or should?

It’s difficult to say. Haque, in his article, referred to rotten (pocket or proprietorial) boroughs, areas that would send members to parliament and were literally in the pockets of M.P.s or those who could nominate M.P.s. They were done away with, but the effort began in late 18th century, around 1795 if I have it right, and went on until the 1867 Reform Bill, even though the first major victory came in 1834. There was reform chatter all right and the chatter, over a long period, also transitioned to acceptance within parliament that such boroughs weren’t in line with the constitutionalism that was supposed to inform the form and substance of democracy.

But why didn’t it work when there was more than one Dr. Haque, ahead of his time, pointing it out? Not enough takers; not enough interest; vested interests in the rotten boroughs; or perhaps all of this and more? Look at it like this: Sharif’s party resisted abrogation of articles 62/63 of the Constitution. How will he approach the issue now if, magically, he were to survive this episode, much like Jon Snow brought back to life? He will surely do everything possible to get rid of these articles. Corollary 1: those bad articles stayed for vested reasons; they will go for vested reasons. Corollary 2: most reform happens for reasons of knavery than progressive reform mindedness.

Some weeks ago, another eminent economist and friend, Dr. Ali Cheema, mentioned a book to me as we sat having coffee at a joint in Lahore’s Gulberg area: Two Cheers for Anarchism by James C. Scott. I tried getting a hard copy in vain (I am still ancient that way). But then I found an e-book version. This is what Scott says in the preface:

“Scientific progress, many believed, had uncovered the laws of nature, and with them the means to solve the problems of subsistence, social organization, and institutional design on a scientific basis. As men became more rational and knowledgeable, science would tell us how we should live, and politics would no longer be necessary. Figures as disparate as the Comte de Saint-Simon, J. S. Mill, Marx, and Lenin were inclined to see a coming world in which enlightened specialists would govern according to scientific principles and ‘the administration of things’ would replace politics… we [have] subsequently learned… that material plenty, far from banishing politics, creates new spheres of political struggle…”

The point is simple. Politics is not about neat, rational administration of things, a not-so-hidden assumption in the idea of reform. Politics is sweaty, and very often, as in our case about wrestling with the pig. The last thing on the mind of someone doing that is the money he paid for his Pal Zileri suit. Also, as Popper noted, utopian social engineering leads to much repression and violence. Whether piecemeal engineering is any better, some critics think no.

Are reforms a function of a top-down, conscious approach? Perhaps. Should there be ‘reform chatter’ as Dr. Haque said to me in a bilateral conversation? Sure. Will it fly? Perhaps not. Does it mean we are condemned to keep rolling the rock up only to see it go down. Yes and no. Somethings will stick, other won’t.

But what I do know is that the requirements of those of us who are privileged but away from the heat and din of politics are very different from those who are in the belly of the beast. At least for now.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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