The debate on fake degrees has captured the middle class imagination of Pakistan’s mainstream media. True that lying and misrepresenting facts is not acceptable. Yet, discriminatory laws against the political elites are not kosher either. The debate on the issue remains sensationalist, purist and devoid of the larger context of Pakistan’s democratic history.
Each era of our existence has witnessed such campaigns. In the 1950s laws to screen out the corrupt politicians was launched with much fanfare. It was a clear tool for the unelected institutions to tame and manipulate the political class. In the 1960s such a process was institutionalized and Pakistan reeled under the ill-effects of authoritarianism leading to the break up of the country in 1971.
The establishment continued the policy throughout the 1980s and we witnessed the growth and proliferation of politicians who were absolutely wedded to the fortification of Pakistan as a national security state. In the 1990s, such games continued and we have cases from that decade which are yet to be adjudicated. The state as a whole has used these as bargaining chips. This is why the debate on NRO is complex and its moral simplification becomes a historical act in itself.
The new wave of politician-watch is now emerging from the mainstream media which has tasted an unprecedented spurt of power during the Anti-Musharraf movement in 2007. Arguably, that was a fascinating moment in our history; however, its long-term ramifications are yet to be assessed. The narrative of the lawyers’ movement places it above the ‘dirty politics’ of the political parties. Symbolically, the elections of 2008 –with fairly legitimate results – were boycotted by the lawyers. Optimists however hold that this was essential to Pakistan’s democratic development. Civic action is the backbone of functional democratic polities.
However, the media and the civil society activists are not elected. This is plain truth without casting any aspersion on the motives behind the current umbrage on fake degrees of over 150 legislators across the country. The interesting part is that there is less of focus on the madrassa degrees which are as irrelevant as a spurious degree. After all who regulates and ensures the quality of madrassa instruction in Pakistan? No one except the sectarian heads of such seminaries. The reluctance to take on the madrassas also displays the general reticence of the media to confront with political Islam that is inextricably linked to the national security paradigm of the state.
More dangerously the current debate ignores the wider agenda of electoral reform that remain unattended. The issue of submitting degrees cannot be divorced from other oaths and declarations that the legislators have to provide at the time of contesting elections. The efficacy and capacity of the Election Commission is also a huge challenge that remains ignored. What we need is a comprehensive package of electoral reforms agenda agreed by the political parties. The Charter of Democracy has some pointers that can be expanded further. We definitely don’t want witch hunting and further defamation of the politicians at a time when democratic system faces formidable dangers and when the might of the unelected remains supreme over the elected. Democracy does not become functional, moral and competent in two years after a decade of dictatorship.
This is why the out of focus shrill on the fake degrees contains the seeds of political instability. Already there are predictions and endless talk shows on the possibility of mid-term elections. Is it not a democratic norm to let an elected government complete its tenure? Even if hundreds of legislators are disqualified by the Election Commission, bye-elections can be held within ninety days and the issue will be resolved.
The political parties should be pressurized to deliver on their internal accountability and transparent management of party structures. But they should not be hounded and discredited so soon. We will have to choose what we want to be: an autocratic banana republic or a democratic polity. If we choose the latter then we have to be fair, democratic and not so ready to dismiss the electoral process altogether. Reforming the institutions is far more rewarding than abolishing them.
A version of this article was published in Daily Express-Tribune