Cyril Almeida: A fake crisis

The following article by Cyril Almeida published in Dawn is an excellent observation about a point that this blog has mentioned – the ‘fake degree’ crisis is a fake crisis.

The pious and the righteous have pronounced judgement: it’s fire and brimstone for the sinners. For eternity, the holders of fake degrees will pay for their sins, having refused to self-flagellate or fall on their swords.

It’s a joke.

With sins aplenty on all sides here, let’s start with the original sin. Why were the fake degrees part of the official record in the first place?

Well, a long time ago, a dictator named Musharraf wanted to usher in a new era of politics. It was supposed to be out with the old, in with the new.

One short cut: declare everyone without a bachelors degree ineligible to contest elections and voila! Just like that you have a new era of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, degree-clutching legislators who would transform us into the Asian tiger we have always dreamed of becoming.

We know how that turned out.

Fast forward to the next general election, in 2008. As the deadline for filing of nominations approached, the bachelor-degree requirement was still on the books. It was patently unconstitutional, morally indefensible in a purported democracy with literacy rates as low as ours, and would have been struck down in the blink of an eye had we an independent judiciary.

Oh, the irony. Now that we have an independent judiciary and independent media, they’ve got the legislators by the scruff of their necks — all because of a Musharraf-era law that is no longer on the books.

They think they’re oh-so-clever because they haven’t accused the legislators of not having degrees; they’ve accused them of perpetrating fraud by filing fake degrees with their election nomination papers.

But go back to late 2007, when the deadline approached, and put yourself in a candidate’s shoes. (I know it’s difficult, but give it a try.)

You have a choice: opt out of the political process because you don’t have a degree or produce a fake degree and allow the voters a genuine choice.

A managed, staged election versus one in which the voters decide reasonably legitimately who they want to represent them.

I know which one I’d take every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

Alas, we are a land of black and white, but where black is white and white black. The rabble lining up to nail the Class of 2008 to the Musharrafian cross are among the ones who would personally hang Musharraf if they got the chance.

Fraud is against the law, they yelp. Politicians must learn they are not above the law, they scream.

Absolutely. So let’s go after them for breaking the law. Our election laws are detailed and sound — and observed more in the breach than anything else.

Hello, Mr MNA, did you know that you were only allowed to spend a million and a half on your election? Yeah, you, the guy who spent tens of millions on your campaign.

Hey, Mr MPA, did you know that the law prohibits you from transporting any voter other than a family member? Yeah, you, the guy who bussed in voters.

Hey, Mr Minister, did you know that that the maximum size of campaign posters, hoardings, banners and pamphlets is stipulated? Yeah, you, the guy who put up giant, illegal hoardings in your constituency and plastered every inch of available wall space with oversized posters.

Let’s not kid ourselves, it would be impossible to ensure overnight that every candidate in every constituency adheres to the rules.

But by trying to police more tightly the rules on, say, campaign spending, at least the possibility opens up of altering the political class in the country.

In the cities and towns, if MNA candidates are kept somewhere in the ballpark of the Rs1.5 m spending limit, new candidates could be tempted to try their luck. The vast majority of people can’t compete with candidates who are politically entrenched and can spend hundreds of millions.

How exactly is anyone supposed to compete with the duo who were rumoured to have spent over a billion rupees in a bitterly fought election in Gujrat in February 2008?

If nothing else, stricter checks on campaign spending can dampen some, some, of the appetite for corruption among the political class. Moralists are loath to admit this but the need to recoup campaign ‘expenses’ drives up corruption across the board.

Still, what’s the harm in going after the fake degree lot, some ask. They’ve clearly lied, they broke the law and they’ve been caught. Let them off now and it would only reinforce the message that they are unaccountable, above the law, elected dictators.

Admittedly, a trickier area. Start, though, with this question: what is democracy strengthening, system enhancing?

Is it going after candidates who claimed to have degrees they didn’t? The Supreme Court wants them prosecuted, pushing them out of the political arena for five years.

Assume they are. Does parliament become more sovereign or cleaner as a result? Will those who replace the ousted lot file genuine asset declarations? Will the replacements abide by the election laws still on the books? Will they be better legislators?

For answers, have a look at any of the by-elections held since the 2008 elections. Actually, don’t bother. You already know the answers.

There hangs in the Great Hall in Lincoln’s Inn a portrait that would gladden the hearts of even the most jaded and cynical of Pakistanis: that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

That his successors don’t hold a candle to the great man is inarguable. That the present parliament consists of degenerates, law-breakers and pompous clowns whom decent people would hesitate to invite into their homes is also quite clear.

Yet, this parliament of louts and degenerates with their fake degrees is also quite possibly the most democratic parliament we’ve had in decades. The government has not thrown any of its rivals in jail, nor has the opposition sunk its teeth in the government’s neck in a frenzied bid for power.

For sure, if Pakistan is ever to be a better place, some in the present lot will have to be pushed out. Change, though, must be of the kind that holds the promise of a better system, a stronger democracy emerging. Not something that just pleases the pious and the pompous.

While public anger is necessary for cleaning up a dirty system, it needs to be anger with a purpose, smart anger, as it were. Forget the honesty of the intention: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And we’ve already tasted more than our fair share of hell.

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