The New Year, from an astronomical perspective, is a logical fallacy. For all intents and purposes, it is just one random point in space – and each time the Earth crosses that point in space (relative to the sun), we celebrate the beginning of another calendar year.
This year, the New Year is more significant. It also marks the end of a decade – a decade of decadence in Pakistan. A ten-year period that was wrought with political turmoil, unprecedented corruption, heart-wrenching episodes of terrorism, and recurring threat of all-out war. However, in the same breath, let us not forget that this decade also marks our seemingly impossible victory against entrenched forces of terror, a palpable disturbance in the political status quo, and a loosening of the age-old US-centric foreign policy.
In the circumstances, as we wind this decade to a close, it is pertinent to pause and take stock of what we have been through, and what direction we seem to be headed in.
That Qatari letters can be used as defense against corruption. And that medical ailments are a ‘get out jail free card’ – only for the very very elite
At the start of this decade, Pakistan’s institutional viability was still intact. Our exchange-rate was still comparable to other countries in the region, and the economic gains from the Musharraf years had not yet been fully squandered. The Pakistan Steel Mill was still functional and catering to our domestic needs. Pakistan Railways was marginally profitable, and PIA was not yet a loss-making enterprise. Border tensions had started to escalate, but the possibility of all-out war in South Asia seemed implausible.
However, this past decade (of decadence) has introduced us to things we did not know of before. In this time, just in Sindh, we found out what it means to be ‘full-fry’ or ‘half-fry’ in the language of Addi. We discovered what China-cutting was, and how the ‘system’ works under the likes of Manzoor Qadir Kaka. During this time, Omni Group rose from anonymity to become a household name for corruption. We found out how entire banks (like the Sindh Bank) can be created for the purpose of money laundering.
How national institutions like the Steel Mill and PIA can be brought to bankruptcy at the hands of a few corrupt thugs. How children in Thar can die of hunger, even as the likes of Sharjeel Memon make billions at their expense. We discovered how an entire generation of children can suffer, without medicine and vaccination. That places like Lyari can become football fields for terrorists like Uzair Baloch. And how non-payment of ‘bhatta’ can result in the burning of 260 people in that factory in Baldia Town.
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Elsewhere in Pakistan, this decade taught us that the cold-blooded murder of 14 people in Model Town will result in no accountability for anyone. That the surviving children of Sahiwal will forever be orphan under our judicial system. We saw Sharif family assets increase by some 8,000 fold, even as record number of people slipped under the poverty line throughout their government.
We discovered that off-shore investment instruments and Iqamas were the way of making money for our elite. You know, the ones ‘jinn ki England mein toh kya, Pakistan mein bhi koi properties nahi’. We realized that truth, for our political elite, is an extremely elastic idea. That Qatari letters can be used as defense against corruption. And that medical ailments are a ‘get out jail free card’ – only for the very very elite.
But above all, this decade has shown the resilience and strength of our nation. A people who can survive in (and rise from) the depths of gloom. In the aftermath of APS Peshawar (which continues to be the greatest tragedy of modern times), we saw a people unit to defeat the forces of terror. We saw our nation fight against extremism and with the war of terror – when no one thought it was possible. At great cost. Immeasurable, in fact. But we won, nonetheless. Against enemies within, and those who exist beyond our borders.
Should we wait a few decades on the faint promise that our parliament will one day turn its focus away from defending personal fiefdoms, and instead focus on collective welfare?
As we come out of this decade of decadence and look towards the promise of a brighter future, let us muster the courage to tell the truth: that the past decade has taught us that our dispensation of governance, embodied in our constitutional system of parliamentary democracy, just isn’t working. It is not delivering its promise to the people. It has been designed only to benefit a handful of the elite, while making a mockery of our democratic dispensation.
As an example, floor of the Punjab Assembly, throughout this decade, has been an exposé of sit-ins and walk-outs, punctuated with bouts of abusive name-calling. During the PML(N) government years, PTI members barely allowed any legislative work to be done, and preferred long sit-ins outside the steps of the Parliament. Ever since PTI’s government, PML(N) has effectively blocked all activity in the assembly, focusing exclusively on production orders and press-talks, aimed solely at attempting to politically exonerate Hamza Shehbaz and his family.
In Sindh, the matter is even graver. The Speaker, himself under arrest for large periods, has been called on production orders and allowed to preside over the parliamentary sessions. Episodes of verbal abuse and physical threats are part of the customary proceedings. Making matters worse, the Chief Minister, who should be advocating the legislative agenda of his government, has used his speeches in the Assembly to justify Zardari’s personal wealth and the honest(!) business practices of Omni Group. All the while, children continue to die of hunger in Thar, lawlessness is rampant throughout rural parts of the province, HIV virus is destroying innocent lives, and a few days of rain have turned the streets of Karachi into disease-infested garbage dump.
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National Assembly, the epicenter of parliamentary political drama, depicts the grimmest of pictures. Over the past many years, especially since Panama Leaks, National Assembly proceedings have been entirely consumed in defending the personal wealth of select fiefdoms. First it was Nawaz Sharif and his “yeh hain woh assasey”. Then it was Khawaja Asif and his ‘sharam haya’ tirades. Then Fawad Chaudhry and his punchy responses.
Then the politics of production orders, allowing Shehbaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, Saad Rafique, Shahid Khaqan others to present their political defence to legal. No legislation of any real public interest was debated or passed during this time (with the exception of Election Act, 2017… the motivation for which is now all too familiar). Importantly, during this time, the National Assembly has consumed billions of Rupees (more than fifteen billion according to most estimates), with nothing material to show for it.
So what should we do? Should we wait a few decades on the faint promise that our parliament will one day turn its focus away from defending personal fiefdoms, and instead focus on collective welfare? Or should we, instead, think of restructuring our system of governance, so as to envision a more functional and result-oriented constitutional framework?
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At that cusp of this new decade, let us ask ourselves: can democracy function ‘better’ in Pakistan, if certain structural changes were enacted into our Constitution and the law? And if so, what are those changes, and in what manner should they be enacted?
These are serious questions that require national debate. The close of this decade of decadence is a good time to have such a debate. There is no reason to remain pedantic in our approach to the existing constitutional framework. This is a time for imagining a better society, in a new constitutional paradigm, so as to better deliver the promise of democracy to our people.
Saad Rasool is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter: @Ch_SaadRasool. This article originally appeared at The Nation and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.