Mr Tahirul Qadri came, talked, fulminated, and then compromised by paring down his demands. Was this all good? Yes.
The march and the sit-in didn’t uproot the government but, in combination with mainstream and social media coverage, forced it to allow Mr Qadri’s flock into Islamabad, show restraint, and ultimately concede the normative aspect of Mr Qadri’s demands and parley with him on those that can be met without getting into technical difficulties.
This is a plus for the system and regardless of Mr Qadri’s person or his motives in embarking on this exercise, has helped consolidate some norms.
It also initiated a debate, which revolved around what I would describe as ‘Normative’ versus ‘Technical’. I use ‘technical’ instead of ‘constitutional’ deliberately because the latter concept subsumes in itself both normative and technical and is a function of the higher evolution of a system.
Is it democratic for someone, outside the political system — Qadri’s flock is not a registered political party — to try and bring down the democratically elected government or force it to dissolve itself and announce new elections; or even to make demands that the government might not be able to concede on grounds of constitutional technicalities?
These are important questions and those supporting the ruling coalition, more specifically, the PPP, constantly raised them. Qadri, for his part, repeatedly pointed to a system captured by the two main parties and the abysmal record of governance of the PPP. The thrust of his demands was that the system must be purged, such that the process of electing peoples’ representatives became transparent and clean, bringing in those who can be held accountable by the people.
This is not a new demand. What was new, though, was the mobilisation of thousands of people brave enough to face the cold and the rain, camp before the National Assembly and say ‘enough’!
At the heart of it lies the question of whether an elected government can invoke its formation through an electoral process as the necessary and sufficient condition for it to continue in office for a full term even when it is largely perceived to have lost the moral high ground?
Indeed, the Normative Vs Technical debate is grounded in the disconnect between the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. In other words, to say that it is enough for a government to be elected for it to continue for the full term may not be enough.
Being elected is not an end in itself; it’s a means towards an end. And if it can be proved that a government has failed, largely, if not entirely, in helping people meet those ends for which the people had elected it, then we have a problem. What Qadri did, or what many others have been doing over the years, is to point out precisely this problem. Also, the Constitution puts five years as an upper limit for a government; that limit does not mean the government cannot be dissolved and new elections called before that limit is reached.
Pakistan is going through a democratic transition. There’s a sizeable corpus of literature on transitions with scholars using different frameworks to study them but there’s one acceptance common to this literature: transitions are tricky in so far as they deal with breaking away from the old structures and creating new norms (and structures) without the upheavals associated with social revolutions. The challenge then is to employ agency to change structural impediments within the system without destroying the system in toto.
This is not always easy, which is why transitions have a nasty way of getting derailed. Ironically, for the most part, this happens because the ‘democratic’ forces use technicalities, devoid of spirit, to frustrate change. It is all very well to talk about ‘constitutional’ structures, but if the main political parties work towards — or are seen to be doing so — locking down the system to their advantage, it should be obvious that the push will have to come from outside.
One danger with transition pains is that the militaries tend to return to the political arena. And while the political forces agitate when that happens, the debate tends to focus on outside intervention instead of looking at why that might have happened. It is here that Pakistan has shown more maturity in this round. While the normative is still evolving, even a bad government realises that it cannot allow external forces to kick the chessboard and start playing solitaire.
When an elected government begins to falter in the performance of its actions and cannot be brought to heel within parliament, people agitate and put pressure. This is not only their democratic right but also, to the extent that such agitation highlights a discrepancy between the normative and the technical, is essential for making the system robust against shocks and external interventions.
This article was originally published at: The Express Tribune
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.