Uncertain winds of change

As the government continues its shaky existence — lurching from one political mini-crisis to another with its indispensable but prickly coalition partners — and seemingly unable to come to grips with, let alone overcome, the multiple challenges the country faces, everyone is predicting its imminent downfall.Given the history of our democratic experiments, mere survival of a government for three years or more is in itself a dismal record of sorts. So, will it survive to complete its term? The key to that conundrum lies with the MQM, upon whom the government depends for its slim majority in the National Assembly. The day the MQM decides to vote with the opposition, the government will not have the numbers to survive a vote of confidence.

Will the MQM pull the rug any time soon? Who can predict that with any certainty? The primary political objective of that party is to preserve — and if possible to strengthen — its lucrative grip on Karachi and urban Sindh. The violence in Karachi is largely a consequence of the battle between it as the incumbent, and the PPP and the ANP as the challengers for a greater share of those spoils. In this battle the threat to leave the coalition is a potent tool for political blackmail. If the right concessions can be extracted by such tactics, the MQM can both enjoy the fruits of power and freely play the awami (populist) tune by criticising the government. Is the MQM not a past master of this art?Yes, but the MQM also knows that in the next election — whenever that is held — no party can hope to win an overall majority. Therefore, unless the two largest parties get together — which is highly unlikely — any future coalition government will also have to bid for its support, especially if it continues to control economically vital Karachi. So why should it refrain from toppling the present government? It cannot lose much, if anything, by doing so.

One possibility is that the MQM (along with the opposition parties) will keep its powder dry till after the budget. Let the PPP government first pass all those unpleasant fiscal measures (and so take the blame) necessary to raise revenue, stabilise the economy, and meet IMF guidelines. The time will then be ripe for the final and fatal push for mid-term elections.But is a fresh election a real and solid answer to the serious challenges the country currently faces? Will a new shaky coalition government be able to ‘provide relief to the people’, root out corruption once and for all, stop the drone and suicide attacks, reshape our foreign policy in line with the wishes of the people, and free us from economic slavery, etc, etc? Any semblance of a realistic answer to those questions must surely largely be in the negative. Sure, a fresh set of faces can bring a new vigour and zest to the task at hand (and is therefore a worthwhile exercise in itself), but let us not delude ourselves into believing that betterment and change come other than only slowly and incrementally.

But there is always a class of people who believe otherwise and are mesmerised by dreams of easy solutions and quick fixes. Let us admit here that this ‘if only we would …’ syndrome is not unique to us but very much part of the human psyche (as my examples discussed below, from other parts of the world, confirm). Let us admit also that, in itself, it is no bad thing, except when it is given free reign and not tempered with the ground realities.And so, in line with such thinking, lurking in the shadows for us is another ever present possibility that should not be discounted. I refer to that woolly but constant background refrain that the need of the hour is for a non-political ‘national government’ of technocrats under the joint aegis of the army and the judiciary. Let such a government root out the menace of corruption once and for all and give the people the ‘good governance’ they demand. Our army’s well developed taste for power, Altaf ‘Bhai’s’ repeated calls to patriotic generals, and the judiciary’s stepped up confrontation with the government, are powerful indicators that such an unfolding of the political scenario is a possibility not to be lightly dismissed.

So what is in the cards for us? I do not know. But I cannot help think of such matters in my many travels across the Arab world. For, in trying to make sense of the recent upheavals there, it is but natural to try and relate them to our own experience and situation. And, when I embark on such an exercise, I cannot help but think that, for all our problems, we should not forget to also count our many blessings. But then I realise it is also human nature to take for granted what you already have as your birthright.The Arab protests are largely against entrenched dictatorships, economic cronyism, and the stifling control by the ruling clique of the media and all state institutions. Sure, we have had our periodic bouts with dictatorships (and our ‘democracy’ is still far from being full blown), but do we not have a working constitution (of sorts) on whom everyone is agreed, a free media (even though still liable to manipulation by the all-powerful you-know-who), a now independent judiciary, and an open economy?

Some believe that general economic discontent and the army of unemployed educated youth brought about the Arab revolution. But let us remember that, compared to us, the Arab countries enjoy a substantially higher standard of living. And most of the world is suffering from these twin problems, for which there are no easy or immediate answers. No. At root, the Arab demand is for political change in favour of a democratic system whose universal acceptability is now beyond dispute. How ironic then, that many of us still hanker for a non-democratic dispensation in the name ‘good governance’. Did the Arab states get ‘good governance’ for their pains?Political liberties are not easily won or maintained. In this context I fear the Arab states are in for a prolonged period of internal turmoil as they struggle to develop the framework and institutions necessary to preserve their freedoms. In particular, the absence of organised political parties — and let us give thanks again that we have them — is likely to prove a formidable short-term handicap. It would not surprise me at all if political control in most Arab states in the immediate future passes to a coalition of the security forces working in tandem with Islamic parties (the only two organised political entities).Democratic politics is, more often than not, an exasperating business. Alternative forms of government have always had their attractions for a certain class or group but it is time for such people to recognise that, in the modern electronically connected world and the information age, such forms are unlikely to have mass appeal. And, given the finely balanced and interdependent structure of modern societies, if a people are to flourish, there is no alternative but to make the whole of society a partner in that collective enterprise we call a state. – Dailytimes