In a disconcertingly divisive habitat, how does the mostly nonpartisan survive? But before we venture further into answering this question, it is important to define the term “nonpartisan” – not only for what it is, but also for what it is not.
The dictionary definition of nonpartisan is simple: free from party affiliation, bias, or designation. In other words, someone who does not support any political party or group to the extent of saying “my party good or bad.”
This is not to say that the nonpartisan has no position. She does (occasionally, if she can find a party which represents much of her worldview, she would vote for her). But her positions on various issues will be nuanced – i.e., informed by complexity and the understanding that public policy issues require aggregation. Nuance is important here because the my-party-good-or-bad position must, of necessity, shed nuance in order to stay partisan. Even when the nonpartisan supports a party, her support is grounded in issues, not emotions. She doesn’t, like the partisan, believe in shutting other views out. And, unlike the partisan, she will agitate if the party she has voted for begins to disappoint her. In the worst case, she will exit because she is not constituted to follow any party or leader blindly.
As history tells us, the story of utopias is either dystopian and dictatorial, or both. History has seen many “small prophets” promising transformations to “testosterone-driven teenagers as well as pedantic socialists,” to quote Pankaj Mishra.
So, while the nonpartisan has positions, she is not a groupie. She will not put a moratorium on her critical thinking or allow any partisan view to begin thinking for her and shape her life. She will oppose or support a party on the basis of that party’s positions on the issues that she feels are important to her. By the same token, there cannot be in her worldview any place for a single leader or an ideology that seeks to dominate the discourse to the exclusion of other viewpoints – i.e., a leader, party or an ideology that seeks to impose on a state and society the manmade equivalent of God’s great plan for humanity.
As history tells us, the story of utopias is either dystopian and dictatorial, or both. History has seen many “small prophets” promising transformations to “testosterone-driven teenagers as well as pedantic socialists,” to quote Pankaj Mishra. For the mostly nonpartisan, democracy is about participation and participation means having a voice. It also means, as the Federalists were conscious, that a state must not degenerate into coercive majoritarianism; that it is crucial to have a republic where rights are constitutionally guaranteed and cannot be trampled by anyone, whether a dictator or a democratic mob. Put another way, democracy is not just about demos and a political system of rule by the people. It is, most importantly, a system of rights.
Seen from this perspective, rights-based democracy is actually pretty boring. There are parties and leaders and representatives. Everyone works, for the most part, within a rules-based order. People regularly vote in and vote out representatives and parties. Often, they are more concerned with Parent-Teacher Associations, their local problems and communities than anything grand. There are no heroes; it’s not a roller-coaster. It’s a process, often banal, precisely because it is predictable. It’s a place for Brecht. For adrenaline, you can turn to a range of sport. For the rest of the time you commute, pick up lunch, go back home, take your kids to the park and by year’s end, fill out tax forms.
Not so much here and in many other places. Let us, therefore, return to our original question. How does the nonpartisan survive in a divisive polity which is increasingly growing both discordant and alienating? Walking alone is not easy. It is even more difficult when the nonpartisan will be attacked, hounded and pilloried by partisans of all hues because her positions will anger many. Because, lest we forget, the partisan want their voices heard – but only their own. Other voices do not exist, or must be suppressed. In today’s Pakistan, this is not a hypothetical question or problem. If anything, it is becoming frustratingly existential.
Albert Camus, the French writer-philosopher, is perhaps a great example of nonpartisan anguish. His position on the Algerian War angered both the left and right. Born to a very poor family that had settled generations earlier in French Algeria, Camus’ father died a year after his birth and he was brought up by a mother who was illiterate and deaf in not exactly the most promising circumstances.
Later, his brilliance would deliver him from his situation. During World War II, he joined the resistance against Nazi occupation and edited the famous underground paper Combat. But even as he was busy resisting the Nazis in France, his 1942 novel The Stranger, which brought him international acclaim, was set in his native Algeria; ditto for The Plague, published in 1947. Algeria was what defined Camus, etched in his brain and his work.
Quite often, perfect can be the enemy of good. Sometimes we have to choose between bad choices.
When Jean-Paul Sartre asked the question, “Will we recover?” in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and answered, “Yes. For violence, like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted,” Camus was opposing the “soulless violence” that had gripped Algeria. He was opposed to the French colonists, but no less critical of violence by the National Liberation Front. He looked at himself, like others of European descent born in Algeria, as Algerian. But in the heady days of the Algerian liberation movement, his anguish had no impact on the unabated cycle of violence.
He lived with, to quote Sartre, the “tension which makes the life of the mind.” In this regard, he was much like his own description of Sisyphus, eternally condemned to roll a rock up a hill but never losing his integrity. Camus was his own Absurd hero.
Life forces all of us into making choices. Quite often, perfect can be the enemy of good. Sometimes we have to choose between bad choices. What is important, however, is not to lose sight of the tension that informs the life of the mind, a life grounded in doubt, inquiry, appreciation of multiplicity, respect for the paradox and cognisant of its own limitations. It also requires the ability to find affinities, as William Wordsworth said, in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds. Such a life must be contrasted with partisan certainty.
It betokens an environment conducive to thinking, a culture that rewards ideas and, going by Berlin’s definition of the philosophical, seeks questions that cannot fit into either the empirical basket or the formal one, “questions… distinguished by being general and by dealing with matters of principle; and others, (which) while not themselves general, very readily raise or lead to questions of principles.”
History has seen many upheavals, some far bigger and consequential than what’s happening here. In fact, going by history’s churns, what’s happening here might qualify as nothing more than a storm in a teacup.
There was one tragic flaw in Camus’ position, though. He supported Arab-Algerian rights and freedoms, but did not support Algerian independence. His idea was to have a Swiss confederacy-style arrangement between France and its colonies. There he was out of synch with the times.
Moderation during divisive times, like confidence-building measures between a conflict dyad, works the least, even as it is needed the most. What we are witnessing in Pakistan today is a maelstrom. Most, though not all, have taken hardened, partisan positions (I refer to those who use social media; I have no way of knowing what positions, if any, are taken by the “unwashed” for whom life is nothing beyond the daily grind). History has seen many upheavals, some far bigger and consequential than what’s happening here. In fact, going by history’s churns, what’s happening here might qualify as nothing more than a storm in a teacup.
Yet, given the consequences for the people of current events, it is important, more than ever, for the nonpartisan to weigh in, to try and unpack the complexities and to analyse, as best they can, what lies ahead.
That’s what I hope to do in the second part of this article.
As thoughtful and stimulating as ever, thank you, Mr. Haider. Always a pleasure to read you, albeit less frequently these days.