The common man and democracy

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So near yet so far

 

Raza Rabbani has had a belated realisation, one that only comes when an erstwhile ruling party has to sit on the opposition benches. He laments about a sense of alienation in the people with their representatives in parliament. He also talks about a disconnect between the government and the governed that has allowed adventurists in the past to derail the democratic system and abrogate the Constitution. He concludes that Article 6 no longer guarantees the protection of democracy.

Over the years the common man has rendered untold sacrifices for democracy. The people who struggled against dictators comprised men and women from the working class, even peasantry in the case of Sindh, the urban poor and various segments of the burgeoning urban middle class.

The working class wanted fair labour laws, the landless peasantry sought land reforms and the middle class needed rule of law ensuring supremacy of merit and an end to the regime of social promotion through family connections or bribe. All yearned for social justice, end of poverty, jobs for the unemployed and a better image of Pakistan in the world.

With a sort of democracy restored in 1988 the two parties led by the Bhutto and Sharif families did little to fulfil the common man’s aspirations. Their leaders concentrated on further adding to their wealth through misuse of power. Given another chance after 2008, the PPP leadership once again treated power as a honeypot, paying full attention to adding to its wealth. Since 2013 elections the PML-N is doing the same albeit less crudely. While one has seen palatial Bilawal houses springing up in the four provinces and the Manor of the White Queen in France is visited by its owner when Sindh is sinking in flood, the more discreet Sharifs concentrated on helping their scions to spread the families business abroad, introducing them to Erdoğan or taking them along to meet the Saudi king.

The working class wanted fair labour laws, the landless peasantry sought land reforms and the middle class needed rule of law ensuring supremacy of merit and an end to the regime of social promotion through family connections or bribe

Ask a man on the street and he will readily tell you that democracy as it is being practiced in Pakistan has failed to deliver. Look at the statistics that matter in the life of the common man and the conclusion will be the same.

The two successive elected governments since 2008 failed to concentrate on resolving the people’s most urgent problems. Despite Pakistan having an extra-large reservoir of young population, a neglect to impart skills to it has led to boosting of the ranks of the unemployed and the underemployed. Those who could have turned out to be well to do professionals are polishing shoes in the streets of big cities.

A World Bank Report puts Pakistan’s unemployment rate higher than that of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Only Afghanistan has bigger unemployment rate than Pakistan.

The Global Employment Trends report issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) projected that Pakistan’s unemployment rate — 5.17 per cent in 2013 — is set to rise and then remain more or less the same for five more years due to the kind of political unrest plaguing the country. For 2014, ILO claimed unemployment rate will likely rise to 5.29 per cent.

Ishaq Dar has conceded that over half the population of Pakistan lives below the poverty line. What he is reluctant to admit is that while even a beggar is made to pay tax as he buys a matchbox, hundreds of thousands of the super-rich fail to cough up the taxes they owe to the state. Indirect taxation puts the burden of taxes on the poor. What is more the gulf between the richest and the poorest has widened fast.

As economist Hafiz Pasha puts it, “Inequality is rising as a ‘rapacious elite’ spends billions on buying property in Dubai… Here in Pakistan, it’s really the poor who are getting it bad. The end result is despair, disillusionment.”

Despite the claims by successive governments regarding improvement of education, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Pakistan’s primary education at 136 out of 144 countries. Pakistan’s higher education ranking is 98 out of 144, while in maths and science education our ranking is 104 out of 144. The global Index places Pakistan at 114 out of 140 countries.

The government schools are understaffed because of the phenomenon of ghost teachers. The teachers appointed by the ruling party leaders frequently absent themselves. At places a school premises is used by the local bigwig as a pen for his buffaloes. The well-known private school chains charge fabulous fees which are beyond the reach of the majority of population. Good education is now the privilege of the children of the elite.

Costly medicines being out of the reach may working age people become unfit if they develop a debilitating disease.

Prices of commodities of daily use continue to increase leading to food deficiency and decrease in work efficiency.

Landlessness continues to increase while, with the landlords dominating the provincial assemblies, no government finds itself in a position to introduce or pass a bill requiring land reforms.

In urban areas, slums proliferate because of the absence of adequate housing schemes for low income groups. The inmates are frequently uprooted without being provided alternate living places.

Those elected to assemblies and belonging to the ruling party meanwhile continue rolling in dough. They possess costly cars, live in plush housing societies, go on foreign tours and enjoy perks and privileges along with a handsome monthly pay.

As economist Hafiz Pasha puts it, “Inequality is rising as a ‘rapacious elite’ spends billions on buying property in Dubai… Here in Pakistan, it’s really the poor who are getting it bad. The end result is despair, disillusionment”

Once elected the parliamentarians forget about the problems faced by the people. They in fact lord over the people. Their scions drive around with armed personal guards and have at times killed bike riders for overtaking them.

People experience democracy only on the day they go to cast the vote. They rarely see the elected representatives once the elections are over. I once asked a gathering in Mastung when they had last seen Nawab Aslam Raisani who was elected from their constituency. “The day he came to register his vote here,” pat came the reply.

For more than seven years the parties in power avoided holding the local government elections on one pretext or another. They spent the development funds mainly on high profile schemes. Whatever urban planning has been undertaken is meant to facilitate the rich. Road building projects ensure the smooth flow of motorised traffic on signal free roadways. These are meant for less than the 10 per cent car owning population while these roads pose hazards to bicyclists and pedestrians. With vehicles moving speedily on extra wide roads old men and school children cannot cross from one side to another.

In case people lose hope in the system, they are not likely to be moved if it is wrapped up by an adventurer. As Raza Rabbani has belatedly realised, in the absence of widespread public support Article 6 no longer guarantees protection of democracy. It is only after years that fed up with even a more exploitative military rule that people stand up to fight for democracy.

What had provided confidence to the two ruling families in the past was that whenever democracy is finally restored, people would be forced to choose one of them. The myth of the two party system was broken with the arrival of Imran Khan. Another suspension of democracy and all the three parties might discover after the revival of the system that they are no more treated by the people as genuine options.

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