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Sunday, September 14, 2014

In the ‘national interest’

To borrow a thought we are a nation busily engaged in building our own funeral pyre, a pyre that is starting to smoke. In fact, the flames are already licking our toes. And when it comes to firefighting, our firefighters have been damaged by their own incompetence and stupidity. Who helped build this pyre? What were they thinking? Who are the halfwits whose yanks on the national tiller steered us into such a rock strewn channel? Read on, Macduff.
Placing the blame where it lies is easy enough. The two Sharifs are unquestionably the chief culprits. Sharif the elder has never really been a mere agent of the people. He’s always been more complicated than that. Nor is he the routine legislator. He’s far more than that. It has been said about him that “he smiles and resents and remembers and grudges”. He’s so casually anti-democratic that he appears monarchical and virtually unapproachable. Yet, somehow, he has the resilience of a rubber ball. He has bounced straight through the doors of the prime minister’s office on to the seat of authority for the third time. And on each of these occasions he has failed. But somehow the great unwashed have not caught on or, if they did, have forgiven him his shortcomings because he has never provided equitable growth or really cared a fig for their welfare.
As for Sharif the younger, he has a mercurial effervescence which appeals to those fed up with the kind of dullards, who have dominated past Punjab administrations. His screamingly obvious impatience and bad temper should have prevented him getting as far as he has but for the fact that his elder brother is the head of all national selection boards. But not everything can be sacrificed for the sake of efficiency or brotherly love. Swivel-eyed administrators with knee-jerk and pointlessly extreme reactions like Shahbaz Sharif can be a bane. They forget that the police forces should be feared by criminals and supported by the respectable majority. Under the younger Sharif, the Punjab police achieved the opposite.
With the standoff between the Sharif brothers and the Allama and the Kaptaan seemingly complete, what’s next? Before attempting an answer let’s first consider what the latter two unlikely bedfellows have achieved.
Well, for a start, they seem to have turned a part of the middle class against democracy. Of course, they heatedly deny any such intention but when pressed, the impatient Allama responds, “so what? The kind of sham democracy we have is not worth preserving” and then goes on to describe what these are all the while working up the audience to a frenzy. Of course, there is a great deal of truth in what he says, but it’s the kind that infuriates a lot of people, especially the suited and booted lot and their women, in other words, those who believe that ‘the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship,’ which too is absolute nonsense but that’s another story.
To be sure, the middle classes here and abroad have not uniformly turned against democracy or each other. In many countries, such as Iran, the middle classes remain the locus of national reform movements. In Myanmar too, men and women from the middle class, including students, have continued to push for democracy as that country begins to change. But when the middle class does turn against democracy, or are divided among themselves, their intervention can prove very destructive. It usually takes the form of inviting the military back into politics.
Similarly, by legitimising the use of street demonstrations to oust elected leaders, it delegitimises elections which can be a dangerous trend because then the middle classes, and also the majority poor, become convinced that only street demonstrations work to oust opponents. This has happened in Thailand, Taiwan, and Venezuela, etc.
But that possibility is not to condemn the methods used by the Qadri-Imran duo. Thus far their movement has been remarkably peaceful and effective and by no means dangerous or unacceptable. In fact, it is the ills against which they are struggling — injustice and rigging — that are intolerable. Imran Khan and Qadri deserve praise for what they have achieved thus far.
A way out of the current travails is for the ‘umpire’, whose popularity has soared over the past few weeks, in contrast to the public’s lack of trust in political parties, to step in to fill the power vacuum in Islamabad. And to do so regardless of the prattle, here and in Washington, about not violating the constitution, etc; and having done so, to get to work immediately, either directly or through proxies, to restore the derailed democratic process on which we seemed so happily launched in 2008.
The task may look onerous but it isn’t really. We already have in place all the required institutions needed to carry it out. We know what is to be done and all the reforms of law and procedures required for fair elections. And once these are promulgated, all that will remain is the holding of elections and to hand over power to those fairly elected within a time frame, comprising months and not, I repeat, not years. That way we get to cut the Gordian Knot that has proved impossible to untie and return the nation to democracy without fear of setting dangerous precedents or scrapping the constitution. (The newly elected legislature would, of course, be free to accept or reject the measures taken.)
But, I suppose, like everything else about this country, that’s too simple an answer. After all, there’s no knowing what are the self-interested calculations and actions of our rulers which drive politics in Pakistan. Here, sadly, it’s not the national interest but theirs that matter.
By Zafar Hilali
The Express Tribune