As the US Presidential election campaign heats up, the discourse of the two candidates – particularly the Obama camp – presents a sharp contrast with political discourse and leadership in Pakistan. While election issues and campaign styles naturally differ just as much as the two countries do, in these two ostensibly democratic systems, there is also a widening gap in the discourse around politics, a gap with very real implications for the way politics functions and is perceived and it’s interaction with the average citizen – Pakistani or American. While Democrats in the US are debating and discussing what it means to be an American, the values and dreams that drive their nation and what makes America exceptional, politicians in Pakistan seem increasingly content to point fingers, make backroom deals and avoid taking a stand on the big issues. With our own leaders unwilling to tackle the greater issues of what it means to be Pakistani and what our nation stands for, it is hardly surprising that people’s faith in the political process is wavering.
At the Democratic National Convention these overarching statements of “Americanness” were out in force, as Democrats chose to paint a picture of the country for the electorate. Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio set out his vision of what makes America unique, highlighting the importance of each generation working to better the prospects of the next, as “the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay … But each generation passes on to the next, the fruits of their labor”. First Lady Michelle Obama offered a similar belief, speaking about “that fundamental American promise that, even if you don't start out with much, if you work hard and do what you're supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.”
Beyond passing on a better future to your children, the First Lady went on to talk about their belief that “when you've worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity … you do not slam it shut behind you … you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Through all these assertions, Democrats are attempting to move the discourse around the election away from statistics and spending projects and towards something bigger – a fundamental national conversation about what it means to be a citizen of their democracy and what the hopes and dreams of these citizens – and their leaders – are for the future of their country.
This is in stark contrast to the political discourse familiar to many of us here in Pakistan, where seat-adjustments, subsidies, and spending projects trump talk of a greater vision for the country. Since the days of Roti, Kapra aur Makan there’s been little emphasis by any political parties towards providing another national rallying cry – and even less effort towards providing food, clothing and shelter for all. Without a greater vision of what it means to be Pakistani, without a discussion on our hopes and dreams as a nation and without a discussion on the Pakistan we hope to pass on to future generations, we are drifting, especially vis-à-vis politics and governance. As our leaders continue to squabble over who is to blame for the scandal of the week, the populace grows more apathetic and disillusioned with these leaders and the democracy they represent.
The potential for democracy is much greater however, with the right leadership force to guide the citizenry. As maligned as it may appear in Pakistan, with democracy we have the potential to lift up a people and bring all Pakistanis together in writing the next chapter of our nation’s history. Through a representative democracy, the factory worker in Karachi has recourse to fight oppressive working conditions, the marginalised minorities have a forum to demand better and equal rights and landless disaster-stricken peasants have the opportunity to hold their government accountable for transparent planning and disaster response.
Despite all its flaws, the Obama Administration has succeeded – both in 2008 and to a lesser extent this year – to reawaken the passion of a nation mired in troubled times, to reinvigorate the belief of the citizenry in the hopes of a better tomorrow and to reignite the fundamental debates on being a citizen of America’s democracy. As we head towards our own election cycle, beyond the usual politicking and point-scoring, reigniting a debate on the fundamental meaning of democracy in Pakistan has the potential to restore faith in democracy, and reawaken a great nation towards achieving our shared destiny.