Grow up, young voters

Feisal H. Naqvi

Let’s be clear about one thing: The youth of Pakistan are not going to save this country.

I agree that it is wonderful to have an informed and educated youth calling for reform, but reform does not come from desire alone. Reform requires both political will and knowledge. And the youth of this country can supply neither.

Since it is more debateable, let me take the issue of political will first.

Political will means the desire of people in power to change that which is wrong about this country. The term ‘people in power’ includes not just politicians but also the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the military. None of the last three give a rat’s patootie about what young people think. On the other hand, each of the three can be affected by elected governments. So whatever little hope the Pakistani youth have of impacting political will is dependent entirely on political parties.

Political parties can mean either the established political parties or some new force. As far as the established parties are concerned, all the youthful enthusiasm in the world is not going to make a damn bit of difference. No matter how much the youth protest, the established parties are still going to present the people of this country in the next election with a slate of candidates ranging from the overtly criminal to the covertly corrupt. If a few individuals do become strongly identified with a popular demand for reform, they will be co-opted into existing power structures, perhaps even given a ministry or two. And then, as desire fades, they, too, will become indistinguishable from their former opponents.

But what about new parties, you say? What if Imran Khan or some other reformer rides a wave of popular support into power? After all, it has been done before: Look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and the 1970 elections.

There are two answers to that fond hope. The first is that Imran Khan is no ZAB. Pakistani politics is based on a first-past-the-post system with 272 directly-elected constituencies spread across the length and breadth of this country (all the rest are indirectly elected). In order to have a meaningful number of seats, Mr Khan would need not just massive support but well-distributed massive support. There is nothing that I have seen or read which comes close to indicating any such movement for him in Pakistan. His most recent jalsa in Peshawar — undoubtedly his most successful till date — netted him a grand total of about 10,000 people. Even if independent estimates are off by 50 per cent, that support would not be enough to get him a single seat in the National Assembly, even in Peshawar itself.

I do not mean to malign or belittle Mr Khan. I have immense respect for his determination. It is quite possible that I am completely wrong in my estimate of his popular standing. But let us just concede for now that an electoral tsunami in his favour looks somewhat unlikely.

My second point is quite different. Even if it can be assumed that Mr Khan will pull off a massive upset in the next election, he has yet to put forward any plan or a detailed set of policy prescriptions explaining how he is going to fix all the myriads of problems that Pakistan faces. Instead, Mr Khan’s response is that he will select technocrats, who will take care of all this for him.

Mr Khan’s response is not a workable solution. To begin with, Mr Khan, as prime minister, will not have the option of simply appointing technocrats to all ministerial posts. Instead, he will have to pick ministers from the ranks of his fellow members of parliament (with some limited exceptions). Unless Mr Khan has been busy persuading brilliant and honest technocrats to stand by him, he will not have an all-star team of governance experts from which to choose his cabinet.

The next point is more important. Irrespective of the quality of Mr Khan’s fellow parliamentarians, formulating policy whilst in power is simply not an option. The reason for this is simple: When you are in power, practically every single waking moment of your life is spent in dealing with urgent pressing problems. In the middle of this tumult, politicians do not have the luxury of stepping back and taking months to formulate policies.

Let me put this in cricketing terms: The time to learn technique is when you are practising. You can’t figure out how to bowl inswingers after you walk into the stadium.

The standard response to this view is that everything is okay in Pakistan, that all we need are some honest people at the top. This response is rubbish. Yes, we suffer from a plague of corruption. But replacing the current crop of ministers with well-meaning people is not going to solve our problems. Those problems are deep-seated and require structural reforms, not just new faces. To use another cricket example, getting rid of Salman Butt may have helped our match-fixing problem, but it didn’t teach our opening batsmen how to play outswingers.

Does that mean the youth of this country should give up hope? No, of course not. But we need to start growing up and stop treating our problems as minor. Imran Khan has no magic wand that he can wave to fix our problems. And if the young people of this country want to be taken seriously then they need to take politics in the same vein. What they need to demand is not just a pledge to be honest, but a pledge to be intelligent, a pledge to take our problems seriously.

I believe that Imran Khan is honest. But if he wants my vote, he needs to show me that he also knows what to do if he becomes prime minister. As for the youth of this country, I suggest that they take themselves and our problems more seriously. I’ve had enough of empty slogans: Sooner or later, they will too.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2011.

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