Democracies, developing and established, have their own nuances in terms of the markets they represent for new ideas and personalities. Established democracies may be substantively more competitive—in the sense that a greater number of individuals from a plethora of backgrounds have a chance of success when they run for office. You may not need to be a landlord or a former politician’s off-spring or spouse to succeed. But established democracies also represent higher ‘barriers to entry’, as it were, to certain new ideas or individuals that aim to overthrow the status quo. Whether this is a good thing is likely to remain contested and is likely to turn on the politics you favour.
These ‘barriers to entry’ do not exist in developing democracies to the same extent. Every few years democracies in developing countries will see a figure rise up with a new populist message. Often times such a message will talk about a radical departure from the status quo. How far such ideas or individuals pushing them go will also be a function of the culture of debate in a society. A media that is willing to grill new entrants with a radical message is likely to play a supporting role in weeding out the arm-chair aspirants from any real revolutionaries.
All of this comes into a stark focus when examining the curious case of Dr Tahir-Ul-Qadri. His message is clear: the system is corrupt and it needs to be done away with. Parts of this message resonates with the message of political parties of various hues. Part of it makes anyone endorsing it seem downright cuckoo. Dr Qadri wants to push the system but he does not really want to over-throw it. His agenda is very selective and that makes him suspicious. He wants to overthrow the political regime but he never wants to overthrow the state as it exists. This is not to suggest that overthrowing the state should be one’s aim but if one is a radical, then why stop shy of the logical aim?
If his concern really is about institutions then his criticism of the military establishment and its actions to hijack the civil-military balance is conspicuous from its absence. He has also been careful not to speak of the military’s involvement in civilian affairs.
In an established democracy, a figure like Dr Qadri would get no traction. He would be ripped apart by the media—a man who holds dear his foreign nationality while claiming to revolutionise a country he was born in. Apart from this, the logical inconsistencies in his narrative would take him nowhere. But Pakistan is hardly an established democracy. The powerful media, without prejudice to its claims of independence, is still not sure about its own patience for democracy. Therefore, attempts to destabilise the democratic setup are often, even if inadvertently, celebrated by the media. Of course, electronic media must show the support that Dr Qadri has—but it must also do more to rip apart his narrative of making Pakistan a better country.
We must also acknowledge that the apparent political popularity of figures like Dr Qadri is a product of the limitations of the national narrative—a narrative shaped heavily by the military and its favourite children from time to time. In this narrative, corruption by civilian politicians is all that matters. It represents the greatest danger. The corruption of those who weaken the elected civilian politicians is never the focus. Similarly, the corruption of young minds through a distorted interpretation of religion is also not relevant for this narrative.
In this sense, such figures are likely to rise from time to time. The deep state’s dream, the civilian politician’s nightmare.
Dr Qadri’s actions have been downright irresponsible and deliberately provocative. After the tragedy of the loss of lives in the Model Town Lahore incident, the government became over-cautious and decided not to leave anything to chance. The details of the Model Town incident remain largely murky. However, apart from the excessive use of force by the police, one must not forget the real likelihood that Dr Qadri’s supporters (or the elements sponsoring them) deliberately created a situation that would result in loss of life and property. A peaceful march does not help Dr Qadri. He only gets to make the news if there is trouble. I would be very reluctant in laying the entire blame on the Punjab government. Dr Qadri and his supporters (along with elements sponsoring them) have a real motive to make sure there is blood on the streets and fires in the marketplace.
Maybe Dr Qadri’s plane should have been allowed to go to Islamabad. The pushback would be that the government probably had information that his supporters planned on creating commotion at the Islamabad Airport. However, by diverting the flight to Lahore, the government played into the hands of Dr Qadri and the media lapped it up.
Right now, Dr Qadri is acting like an angry and spoilt child on the loose. He and his supporters will say and do things just to get a reaction out of the government. This is what those who feel aggrieved and desperate often do. If the government lets him go about his business without giving him too much attention (while at the same time not compromising on necessary policing standards), he is likely to get little traction out of this exercise. But at times, for inexplicable reasons, the government does panic. The electronic media must take part of the credit or blame for inducing such panic.
But is this really about the traction that Dr Qadri will get? Or is this another instance of the deep state reminding the civilian leadership how tentative democracy really is? Regardless of how tempting some may find it to criticise the federal and Punjab government, they also deserve our support and sympathy—if we stand for democracy in this country. One of the tragedies of Pakistan that the role of religion, language and democracy in its polity has still not seen any real consensus. However, if democracy is to prosper then such a consensus must not only be built but sustained. The PM and the CM Punjab deserve the support of all political parties when dealing with a nuisance like Dr Qadri. He has rights but he has no right to invite and spill blood or blackmail a democratically elected government.
Maybe the PM could take a leaf out of Mr. Zardari’s book who let Qadri have his moment. And eventually such thrill seekers run their course and fizzle out. However, Dr Qadri is not the first and will not be the last figure propped up to ridicule elected civilian leaders.
One hopes that with each passing day the civilian leadership will learn for a better tomorrow. More power to them.