by Najma Sadeque
URBANITES owe much to independent television. It has played a key role in informing and aiding political mobilisation. For those with little or no education, it has been a crash course in democracy.
Yet television pulls its punches over grassroots issues similar to the government’s ‘hands-off policy’ where feudal politicians rule the roost and where independent channels are still not allowed to penetrate. So all we’re left with is an attempted urban democracy, where the media gives labour some voice and visibility, but doesn’t quite advocate equal rights and representation.
The enforced silence of entire communities, villages and tribes on exploitation, inhumanity and violence — notwithstanding the independent media cacophony that does not reach the countryside — is shocking. It amounts to being the chilling silence of the lambs which constitutes the real picture of Pakistan’s society and polity. For the masses, little has changed. Pakistan has never been a democracy even in its several short-lived democratic experiments. In our context, democracy can only be defined as being exclusive to men and male priorities, with focus on the interests of the middle and upper classes.
In some societies, one of the unwritten qualifications of a worthy male political representative is both the status of the womenfolk in his family, and that of his employees, whether peasants, factory workers or household servants. It can be very revealing where double standards are the norms. A man may be publicly pious, even good to his wife and daughters, yet viciously maintain bonded labour in chains.
Rights are not confined to basic wages and utilities. They also demand just redistribution and allocation of resources so that everyone can have a minimum acceptable start in life, since a just society is not possible under local or national monopolies and cartels. The obvious now needs to be spelt out explicitly in the constitution. Too many politicians separate political rights from human rights as if the latter were optional luxuries under lofty UN conventions only to be given lip service.
Giving people a once-in-a-while chance to cast a vote does not in itself constitute democracy. It merely offers them a narrow, pre-selected choice over leadership. But they cannot determine how and to what degree that leadership will deliver equal rights to citizens. A problematic matter indeed given that absolute power corrupts absolutely!
The road for suffering citizens to their parliamentarians in search of relief is long and convoluted. Real priorities tend to get skewed or suppressed. People do not even get heard. The irony is that a feudal is assigned the task of representing the interests of landless peasants and smallholders; that major business or industrial interests claim to speak for labour which doesn’t even receive minimum wages and facilities to give him dignity; and that an over-generalised GDP and export earnings are made the criteria of a country’s ‘success’ rather than health, livelihood, education, nutrition and comfort of the masses.
The presence of women in parliament is often flaunted as major ‘progress’. It may be so for them personally, but what has it gained for women at large? Domestic violence is accepted as a norm, and women continue to be murdered to assuage dubious male ‘honour’, while politically-connected culprits manage to go scot-free even if some lesser mortals do not. Action is seen to be taken only when an incident gets inadvertently exposed. There are no pre-emptive steps. The police serve the powerful, not the people.
The Balochistan incident of shooting, then burying the victims alive (although refuted by the police) wasn’t the first case of extreme violence against women in this country. Violence against women could fill a gruesome bestseller on Pakistan’s shameful track record, including that of presenting scapegoats as culprits to face the death penalty or the hapless hit-man forced to kill under orders. Laws are subject to interpretations of convenience. Economic exploitation is not even questioned as undemocratic. Justice has to be purchased through the courts and lawyers through a process that dooms the poor who mostly are deemed guilty unless they can prove their innocence.
Any government, even the most inept, can make laws. But the best of paper laws are of no use to people without implementation in a timely manner, not after the victims have died.
The prime minister may have been chosen by the leading political party under the rules, but ultimately he has to be the prime minister of all citizens, not just of his party members and followers. He should therefore be non-partisan in the public interest. Mr Gilani has been as admirable as he has been likeable in that respect until recently when he undertook the unbecoming duty of canvassing for a presidential candidate. That compromised his neutrality as a prime minister of the people.
Even otherwise, long before the prime minister’s independence was nipped in the bud and reduced to a token, the party appeared to be reduced to a civilian dictatorship, already being reflected in governance. The takeover by a single person who has never been known to be a party man or even seen by the side of the late chairperson over the past seven years, and who as a consequence of his past opportunistic stint in government, creates only doubts about his credibility and reliability as president, raising serious misgivings for the future. There are means to unilaterally dump a prime minister but none to dispense with an unsatisfactory president.
By marginalising party members respected for their integrity and contribution, competition has been forcibly done away with — with, shockingly, no protest from fellow members. It begs the question: what was the price paid? This party badly needs to hold up a mirror and see itself the way the people view it — with disapproval. For the moment, the cat seems to have got the members’ tongues, as they echo everything sounded from the empty drum of the head honcho.
Again and again, Ms Bhutto’s history and role is held up as reason for immediate family members to take up the reins. But second-generation life-chairmanship and arbitrary co-chairmanship until an imposed head is of the required age and maturity, is not democratic; it is carefully crafted cultism. As such, expectations are nil from an expected-to-be president who avoids public debate on people’s issues, knowing he cannot knowledgeably or competently engage in public debate, and relying on a not-so-representative numbers’ game instead.
If all this spells little hope for the ordinary male citizen, there is none whatsoever for the women. Until civil society creates parties that represent the majority and exclude entrenched interests, nothing will change.