Five questions that need to be asked on the eve of elections

Shahab Usto (Credit:
Leadership is all about coming up with the right answers to the fundamental questions that are related to the state and society; the rest is just fancy gimmickry and demagogy to woo the half-literate and gullible electorate.

The search for these answers has become all the more imperative as the parties are bracing for the ‘final’ round to ‘oust’ one another from the electoral arena or from the realm of probablity to form a government , though it remains to be seen how they are going to achieve their goal within the democratic parameters when none of the parties seems likely to achieve the required numbers in the elections to single-handledly form a government at Islamabad, if not in the provinces. Moreover, what alternative programme do they have that is going to salvage the country from the existing crises? Finally, do they really believe the problems lie only with bad governance, corruption etc ( as the PTI vehemently claims) and not with the fundamental national security and foreign policy paradigm, which has been jealously guarded by the establishment right from the beginning?

In addition to these queries, there are five questions of primal importance that the mainstream political contenders must answer on the eve of the elections if they have to steer the country out of the gathering storms.

First, how to forge a foreign policy that should pursue a peaceful resolution of bilateral and regional disputes without compromising on national interests, and more importantly, shunning the abstract non-state or meta-state strategic objectives?

This question arose on the very eve of the country’s creation. Kashmir and other disputes with India demanded that the state’s policies should strike a balance between social and security priorities. Unfortunately, that balance was never struck. Security trumped the social sector, sowing the seeds of both intra- and inter-national conflicts with or via India, which cost the country half its part and plunged it into regional and global conflagrations, particularly in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and 9/11.

Secondly, how to drastically rehash the existing lopsided socio-economic order to change the pathetic social and economic realities faced by the millions of the dispossessed and marginalised masses? Again, this question has never been seriously addressed. Particularly after the perceived ‘failure’ of the PPP’s ‘socialist agenda’ and the tragic fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, none of the political or military leaders has dared to go for a meaningful redistribution of wealth and resources. Instead, the fledgling trade unions and peasant movements were nipped in the bud by means of repressive laws and the coercive state machinery.

As a result, today on the one hand half of the population is illiterate, one-third ‘very poor’, one-fourth homeless and one-fifth unemployed, but on the other the country has seen over recent years an increasing monopolisation of industrial, financial and landed assets by a small group of political, business and bureaucratic interests. In fact, regardless of which political party is in power, the state continues to remain blindly wedded to this oligarchic neo-liberal economic model that has failed even in the west in the absence of state regulation.

De-politicisation by General Musharraf and the so-called political ‘reconciliation’ have further strengthened this oligarchic order. As a result, the weak and impoverished classes have been suffering at the hands of bad governance and rising cost of living but the rich and resourceful have been reaping the rewards of a lax fiscal regime, ineffectual accountability and an unbounded access to power.

Third, how to remove the ill will, acrimony between the powerful Centre and the smaller provinces and and the increasingly uncontrolable sectarian, ethnic and mafia-style violence within the society? This question continues to beg an answer notwithstanding the loss of the eastern wing in 1971, the recurring insurgencies in Balochistan, ethnic turf wars in Karachi, and the increasing demand for more linguistic provinces. Moreover, the recent constitutional reforms and devolution of powers to the provinces has made it incumbent upon the political (and military) leadership to evolve a consensus on maximum provincial autonomy. This question may seriously impinge upon the federation and security of the state. Already, the Centre-provinces relations, particularly with reference to Balochistan, are increasingly getting snarled up with the regional web of rivalries and proxy wars, further complicating the situation. Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to the ‘safe havens’ for insurgents in Afghanistan.

Fourth, how to stem and reverse the rising tide of sectarian and inter-religion conflicts that have traumatised society and turned the state into a pawn of regional and global jihadi and counter-jihadi wars? This question needs to be addressed politically and socially, i.e. by enforcing a stringent rule of law to develop a tolerant space for discourses among the representatives of various liberal, religious and sectarian schools. The purpose should be to help evolve an understanding on freedom of expression and respect for multi-scholastic views. So far, the mainstream leadership, both liberal and conservative, have failed to achieve it. Their myopic partisan interests and mutual distrust have not allowed the participatory democratic system to take root and help accommodate divergent views and ideologies. As a result, the ‘discourse’ has been hijacked by violent extremist outfits.

Finally, how to make the government lean, clean and accountable? This is again a primordial question that has cost many a civilian government, paving the way for the decades-long military rule. More recently, it became the ‘cause’ of the dismissal of at least three elected governments in the 1990s, the ‘lost’ decade. But surprisingly, the civilian leaderships have not learnt any lessons. The PPP-coalition government has been castigated day in and day out for its alleged ‘corruption’ and ‘inefficiency’. Indeed, the debate on good governance has acquired an all-encompassing character. Both the PML-N and the PTI are seeking the electoral approval from the masses on this count.

However, it would be wrong to assign all the fundamental structural — social, economic and political — ills to bad governance, which is a significant but only an administrative aspect of the state. No wonder, autocracy has further aggravated the state crisis by focusing only on ‘good governance’ and leaving the underlying socio-economic and political conflicts unattended. Therefore, what is important is to strengthen the institutional bases of good governance. In other words, let the requisites of good governance be fulfilled by putting in place an accountable executive, responsible opposition, reformative legislature, independent judiciary, watchful media, civil society and so on.

But unfortunately, all the ire and reprobation is reserved only for the executive, leaving out the rest of the constituents of bad governance. The PML-N, for example, at the fag end of the last government launched its ‘go Zardari’ campaign, ignoring the fact that barring a small minority, the entire mainstream leadership was partaking of the government at the Centre or the provinces. Why did they not find and fix the malfunctioning parts of the ‘system’ instead of scoring points on partisan political grounds?

And if they couldn’t, because theywere more interested in capturing power, then at least now let these questions be given the utmost priority in the electoral debates and let the electorate be educated enough to weed out the ‘inept’ and ‘corrupt’ would-be rulers, who ever they are.

The writer is a lawyer and academic. He can be reached at

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