Moeed Pirzada | The Nation |

IF what Dr Tahirul Qadri presented as the contours of his seven-point agenda from Lahore on Saturday is an American or international brain wave –as key politicians have been telling us for the past several days- then for once we must congratulate the State Department, the CIA and the junior mandarins in London and Brussels for researching hard and presenting something that smells like a quintessential Pakistani dream and resonates far too well with the aspirations and turbulent soul of countless millions of Pakistani college and university students, professionals, businessmen, urban dwellers and non-partisan voices in the media.

This does not discount the possibility of a multi-dimensional plan by either the international or the uniformed domestic players to create circumstances for achieving something in politics of whose fuller picture is not yet clear, for instance reducing PML-N’s chances of forming a coalition government at the Centre after the 2013 elections. However, the argument itself beggars some serious reflection and that may also explain why it is important for both the PPP coalition at the Centre and the PML-N in Punjab to ensure safety for this long march. Dr Qadri’s repeated use of the term “illicit or illegitimate” for the 2008 elections was unduly harsh, but the totality of his arguments pointed out towards the ‘political deficits’ inherent in the process and the executive structure that was thrown up in 2008.

With Imran Khan’s PTI, Jammat-e-Islami, Baloch Nationalists and powerful political voices of reason like Mehmood Khan Achakzai all left out of the process, for one or the other reason, the structure had inherent democratic gaps and holes to begin with; a situation of “democratic deficit” that has only grown bigger with the evolution of political process and myriad challenges of governance in the country and is of immense significance as the country of almost 200 million frenzied souls, challenged by serious issues of poor governance, hurtles towards an election, transition and potential transfer of power.

It is in this context that his dissection of the implications of the constitutional amendments of the past few years –especially the 20th Amendment – makes abundant sense. For he points out that the way things stand caretaker setup needs only a consensus between the PPP prime minister and PML-N’s leader of the opposition who are both partisans of their respective support base. If they cannot reach a consensus on the caretaker setup, the decision can be taken up by a committee and failing that by the Election Commission of Pakistan. All of that sounds very democratic and the way it should be; except when you consider the “democratic deficit” that exists because of the peculiar nature of 2008 elections and the emergence of new political realities like PTI since then, that the consequence starts to become clear.

Dr Qadri’s argument regarding the much-touted and praised free, fair and powerful Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) then starts to ring danger bells. If ECP is the last arbiter of the caretaker setup then in its present form and shape it hardly offers much hope. Qadri’s argument that though we all vouch for the integrity of Chief Election Commissioner Justice Fakhur-ud-Din G Ibrahim; his age, nature of demands on his job, and the fact that his authority is limited by the requirement as all decisions have to be taken by majority where the CEC is just one vote among five election commissioners makes him more of a figurehead and a symbol of false hope. And this becomes even more important when we consider that all four election commissioners represent the support of the ruling political parties of their respective provinces.

Many of Qadri’s assertions may be subject of debate and controversy, for he claims that the CEC cannot even make decisions of transfers and postings. But the central tenet of his argument that the ECP neither has the mandate nor the composition or capacity for strong independent decisions appears valid.

Interestingly, these facts have seldom been debated in such terms by the Pakistani media, civil society or even by the political parties like PTI that have built up their appeal around a message of change. Ironically, international donors who have generously funded Pakistani NGOs to analyse and report on Pakistani election procedures need to do some accounting to check if their funded analysts and organisations have pointed out these issues, if not, why.

Dr Qadri’s arguments about the limitations of the ECP and the CEC should remind many lawyers of the brilliant analysis offered by globally renowned Professor of law Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig is ‘Roy L Furman Professor of Law’ at Harvard and has previously taught at Stanford. In his globe bestseller, ‘Code’ he explains that law and policy and decision making options all ultimately depend upon the basic architecture of a system. This is precisely what Dr Tahir ul Qadri tried to explain to his audience on January 12 about the ECP and the future caretaker setup when he argued how Pakistani public will understand all this “structural twist” when even media finds it difficult to see through the collusion that lies at the heart of Pakistan’s political system.

It is important to emphasise that Qadri is not a saint. Though most on media and politics have preferred to describe him as a renowned scholar of Islam; which he may be, but in his present role and demeanour he is essentially a skilful, savvy and bold politician who is determined to create an impact on Pakistani politics.

Though he is no jihadi, he is necessarily looking for martyrdom, but he certainly craves a legacy. His pronouncements of the last two days; his public FIR against the top leadership of the country, his carefully crafted initial agenda for electoral reforms, that resonates pretty well and the declaration to start his journey from Data Durbar, have all created a situation in which if he and his supporters dies in a mysterious terrorist attack of any kind, they will instantly become “Shaheeds” not only for the bearded young men but for countless others wearing jeans and skirts who will find it rather difficult to forget why terrorists have killed Qadri when all his agenda was directed towards PPP and PMLN.

It is important for both PPP and PML-N to engage him in negotiations; he certainly has a powerful argument, his changing maximal agenda can shrink and if he manages to assemble a reasonably large crowd by the time he reaches Islamabad – despite the clever tactics of Punjab police and artificially created petrol shortages – then whether he puts up his camp at D-Chowk or F-9 Park which should better be referred to as Fatima Jinnah Park, the national and international media will be there with their satellites to beam him to the world. All comparisons with ‘Tehreer Square’ are meaningless; Islamabad is not Paris, Tehran or Cairo; this artificial city of bureaucratic imagination has neither the population nor the intellectual wherewithal to support any revolutionary idea. And today’s Pakistan is neither Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt nor Shah’s Iran; we have a political system with reasonable depth and flexibility. However, political forces like Imran Khan’s PTI, Jamaat-e-Islami and influential voices like Mehmood Khan Achakzai will find it difficult to stay silent on the sidelines; they will be forced to take a position. All what will result is a mature political dialogue and it will only help improve the discourse and the elections that will definitely happen this year.