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Our real dilemma

Unshackling the “learned helplessness” needs enlightened political leadership and vibrant civil society for mobilising the masses and defeating anti-democratic forces

Our real dilemma

For the general population, the elections will be, as usual, about living conditions and possibly another exercise in disillusionment — Frédéric Grare, Islam, Militarism and the 2007-2008 Elections in Pakistan, Carnegie Papers, Number 70, August 2006.

Way back in 2006, Frédéric Grare, visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his above-quoted paper, predicted continuous suffering of Pakistanis even after returning to elections due to depoliticisation of large segments of the population under military rules and voters’ apathy.

His prediction has proved right in the wake of ensuing three elections (2008, 2013 and 2018). Today’s Pakistan is witnessing all kinds of conflicts — political, economic, social, sectarian, ethnic and what not. The number of suo motu cases taken up by Supreme Court in recent months confirms the magnitude of the prevailing chaos.

From blatant violations of the fundamental rights of the masses to utter failure in combating heinous crimes, the ruling coalition governments in the centre, Punjab and Balochistan, and Tahreek-i-Insaf (PTI) having two-third majority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are showing capriciousness. In Sindh, the conduct of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is no different though on its website the slogan is: “The new hope for a prosperous and progressive Pakistan.”

In a country of over 207 million people, about 10,000 individuals, prominent in business or profession or holding key positions in state institutions, think they not only know each and everything but can also fix the multiple and complex problems faced by Pakistan. By forming WhatsApp groups and groups on various social media, they indulge in minute-to-minute discussions offering infinite proposals for a prosperous Pakistan. Then there are actions of those having unbridled judicial powers in the name of “public interest litigation” creating an atmosphere of uncertainty rendering the state further dysfunctional.

Actions in good faith by private and public figures in the name of changing “the fate of the nation” are largely misdirected — instead of building institutions they love creating their own “derh eent ki masjid (literally means separate mosque of one and a half bricks, implying self-serving motives). Hungry for self-projection and publicity, our so-called intelligentsia, without even reading the manifesto of PTI or its first 100-day plan, has reached the conclusion without reason and logic that Imran Khan cannot fix the country’s problems.

Summary rejection of this document by the opposition is understandable for political reasons but even the so-called experts are not offering dispassionate analyses. This is the real dilemma of Pakistan. Democracy requires meaningful debate and participation but we engage in levelling accusations or condemnation based on personal biases showing authoritarian bent of mind.

Due to failure of state functionaries to perform their duties for which they are paid (though meagerly), we have gaps everywhere. For example, mushroom growth of religious schools and private schools through Article 25A requires the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 5 to 16.

It is clear that every political party, including the PTI, is a protractor of existing repressive economic system and in the absence of any mass-based party having representation of industrial workers and landless farmers, has no fear of any resistance from people.

The political parties in power from 2008 to 2018 in the centre and provinces openly violated this constitutional command. Busy in mudslinging and condemning each other, political leadership is not serious to take up challenges like creating two million jobs annually and achieve growth rate of at least 7-8 per cent per annum for a decade. This challenge can be our great opportunity for economic progress.

A majority of job seekers are young people who are our greatest asset. Imparting education and skills to them and creating jobs is the real challenge. This can be met successfully by levying taxes for productive investment and employment generation — our real engines of growth. This perspective is conspicuous by its absence in manifestos of the three main vote-securing political parties, PML-N, PPP and PTI. It is obvious that the main objective of all remains shackling the people to “learned helplessness”.

“Learned helplessness,” as demonstrated by empirical data in 1965 by psychologist Martin Seligman, arises from apathy. Once a person knows he is helpless, he stops making any effort to change his circumstances and develops apathy as a way of life. The feeling of powerlessness is so strong that it completely overwhelms his faculties of understanding or the desire to take practical action to alter the negative state of affairs.

This is one of the reasons, why Pakistanis are quick to ignore inconveniences, injustice, lack of fundamental human rights, violence, terrorism, regression and tyranny etc — inflicted by both civilian and military rulers.

The people of this country have become apathetic after continuously witnessing the hopeless conduct of their political leaders. PML-N, PPP, PTI, MMA, MQM even after getting opportunities have failed to serve the people. They, instead, opted to serve the elites and vested interest. For example, during the decade of democracy (2008-18) they did not strive for implementation of a fair tax system for resource mobilisation to meet the ever-growing needs of development and maintenance of infrastructure and providing people with the facilities of education, health, transport and universal entitlements, such as clean drinking water, electricity, accommodation, etc.

The main tragedy of Pakistan is unchallenged perpetuation of unholy alliance of elites — militro-judicial-civil hierarchy and business-cum-politicians. By dispossessing the people from the wealth of natural resources and economic benefits of the country, this anti-people alliance exercises control over them and ensures their exploitation. The repressive economic system, imposed by exploitative classes, is the main stumbling block for representative/participative democracy in Pakistan.

The elites have proved that come what may they will never empower masses even after insertion of Article 140A in the Constitution that requires devolvement of fiscal, political and administrative powers to the masses at the grass root level through municipal self-governments.

In the wake of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, it was the duty of provincial governments to provide fiscal and administrative decentralisation at the local government level under Article 140A of the Constitution but even after eight years, no provincial government ever bothered to establish functional, self-reliant and effective local governments. There is no desire on the part of political leaders to implement Article 140A in letter and spirit.

It is clear that every political party, including the PTI, is a protractor of existing repressive economic system and in the absence of any mass-based party having representation of industrial workers and landless farmers, has no fear of any resistance from people.

Under the circumstances, there is little hope for achieving the goal of an egalitarian society, true local governments having own financial resources to commensurate with the responsibilities under the constitution and other laws to ensure both welfare of the people and sustainable growth at the grass root level.

The apathy arising out of “learned helplessness” is the reason why the masses are not ready to come on the streets for getting their fundamental rights as was the case when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started a movement against the military power or Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman countered atrocities in the then East Pakistan. In those days, political apathy was non-existent as people had faith in their leaders and were ready to fight for their rights.

If political leaders are really sincere in countering anti-democratic forces they must regain support of the masses by giving them their rights and solving their real issues. This will help the masses to overcome the syndrome of “learned helplessness” and apathy. If our leaders keep on fighting on petty issues or engaging in mudslinging, people will lose faith in democracy and may drift towards religious parties.

Unshackling “learned helplessness” needs enlightened leadership and vibrant civil society for mobilising the masses and defeating anti-democratic forces. For this purpose, all the political parties and intelligentsia should work for the welfare of people — their right to free education and health, employment, housing and transport, and other universal entitlements must be taken up on a priority basis.

The writers, lawyers and authors, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

Dr Ikramul Haq

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