- Tabdeeli has happened before
Mohammad Ali Jinnah was a civilian democratic ‘politician’ too.
This needs to be stated outright before any reflexive condemnation of a siasatdaan (politician) comes our way. It is hardly accidental that in recent times, our minds have begun to associate the word ‘politician’ with greed and corruption. ‘Politicians’ are a dark, shapeless cloud above our heads for us to shake our fists at, even when we are unsure as to how they caused us this grievance. This resentment or mistrust is perhaps well-deserved in a country that’s been ravaged by decades of incompetent or unscrupulous civilian political regimes. But those are hardly the only ruling forces we’ve endured.
When Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from the Prime Minister’s office and finally sentenced to imprisonment, the sense of PTI-fanned jubilation was easily felt among the general population. What was curiously missing, was a sense of political and economic uncertainty. That, for many, was a time of redemption; the corrupt politicians were on their way out.
But ‘politicians’ have never been unfamiliar with the inside of a prison cell in this country. Nor are they new to the exasperation of having their regimes cut short suddenly and unceremoniously. What many celebrated as ‘tabdeeli’ has been going on at regular intervals through Pakistan’s history like clockwork. One can almost mark dates on one’s yearly planner for when a well-known civilian politician is going to be dragged out of office and into the back of a police van.
Power corrupts, and politicians are not immune to its corrupting influence. But blanket-criticism of politicians and regular sneering at “democracy” in sarcastic quotation marks, is unlikely to bring us the change that we are looking for
Once again, we have civilian politicians being arrested left and right. We unquestioningly tolerate these seismic changes to our political landscape, because a siasatdaan, in our collective mind, is naturally guilty of greed and corruption. “About time!” we mutter in relief at this welcome tabdeeli, without as much as asking what they’re being punished for, and putting these punishments into their right political context. Whether this justice is blind or selective, is given inadequate consideration. The consequence of the political opposition being systematically erased, appears lost on many proponents of azadi (freedom). This apathy is not out of place in an era where people have been taught to distrust civilian democracy itself, and by extension, their own power.
We celebrate these political arrests because we see them as acts of equalisation; of a corrupted Goliath falling to his knees, cut down to the level of ordinary men. A good question to ask in these cases, is whether this act creates a vacuum that is being filled not by ordinary people, by other powerful and corruptible entities, say private mega-corporations. The Indian forces arresting a Kashmiri man for the act of throwing stones at a military jeep, might appear reasonable to someone who’s unfamiliar with the politics of the region. After all, damaging a government vehicle is clearly illegal, and taking the attacker into custody is understandable. But anyone with insight into the power dynamics of the region, and how a bigger predator benefits from getting smaller predators out of its way, might think differently.
A tabdeeli had already occurred on 5 July 1977 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was forced out of office, and executed in April 1979 on a murder charge. Tabdeeli happened numerous times to Nawaz Sharif in 1993, 1999, and 2018. Tabdeeli gleefully followed the arrests of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, Shehbaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Faryal Talpur, Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar, Rana Sanaullah, Shaikh Aijaz, and many other civilian politicians who have been arrested, tortured, executed, or publicly beaten throughout history. I daresay, there are safer ways to get filthy rich in rising Asia than being a civilian politician in Pakistan.
Yet we continue to treat every instance of a politician’s punishment like it’s the first of its kind in national history, harkening the beginning of a new, corruption-free era. Not only is an arrest immediately accepted by many as ‘fair’, any added torment or humiliation is cheered. The news that Mian Nawaz Sharif was not allowed to meet his family in Eid– an allowance most prisoners would reasonably get– is not only tolerated, but actively endorsed by some Insafians.
How many times does this same tabdeeli need to happen before it actually improves the politico-economic climate of the country?
Perhaps the problem isn’t the player, but the game itself. It’s a game that disempowers the people so utterly, that their only solace is the schadenfreude of watching random civilian politicians getting eaten by lions in a national coliseum. The fairness or unfairness of it remains a faint after-thought, and the rules of the game itself are not challenged.
Power corrupts, and politicians are not immune to its corrupting influence. But blanket-criticism of politicians and regular sneering at “democracy” in sarcastic quotation marks, is unlikely to bring us the change that we are looking for.