What goes around…No more saviours please

Now that the wheel has turned its back yet again, there is much to ponder. There are many who are saying that this is not the time to think or talk but to act. There has already been a spate of protests, truncated and suppressed by the state of “emergency” that has returned to haunt the body politic.

Today, the doyens of the “civil society” across the country are depressed, resisting or incarcerated. However, the civil society – whatever this terms means in Pakistan – must not lose sight of its acquiescence in the first place. There was a widespread acceptance of the extra-constitutional takeover in 1999. A moment was lost, perhaps never to return. The warnings from isolated voices to not let the camel into the tent were ignored by most NGOs, who were excited by the new regime’s agenda in 1999. Key members of civil society became ministers or comfortably pitched themselves as supporters of this regime. Some who had been taking pride in resisting authoritarianism earlier even received honours and awards. The large NGO networks became agents of the state in either defining or implementing the ill-fated devolution plan – remnants of which are now more of a threat rather than opportunity for social change. This love affair between the regime and ‘civil society’ admittedly waned with time, but its basic parameters remained the same. An ostensibly secular ruler was thought to be better than the looming fundamentalist forces.

Subsequent to October 1999, another essential process was completed: the judiciary was made to endorse the new order. Today’s dissenting (former?) judges relented and even allowed the military ruler to amend the Constitution itself. It is good to roar in the courtrooms now, but the favourable judgments are, after all, not that old. Legitimacy to a uniformed President was granted by the very institutions and individuals who now are aggrieved “victims” of the emergency rule. To top it all off, you had the yuppies across the country and outside it who held that there could not be a better President than the present incumbent; and each banker potentially carried a Prime Minister in his/her bodily closet.

Of course, the millions of disempowered remained as much on the sidelines as they are today. Unless, of course, we are to witness the rather unlikely prospect of a rising peasantry and working class. Not quite. This might not even happen despite the growing inequality and inflationary squeeze.

For all these years, the educated middle classes played along until the fateful March of this year, when the growing fatigue against incumbency, the visible lack of control on extremism and of course the exclusion of the “new” bourgeoisie (visible in urban Pakistan) in power sharing, turned into pressures that exploded with the heroism of the former (or is it simply ‘the’) Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The expanded interests of the bourgeoisie were effectively articulated, though not necessarily shared, by the lawyers. A vibrant media though lacking professionalism and maturity, helped steer this process of branding bourgeois constitutionalism as a panacea for all the ills of this country.

There was a much trumpeted victory when civil society erroneously assumed that on July 20 the newly ‘independent’ judiciary had heralded a new power structure. The rising expectations of lawyers, the media and the aggrieved politicians pressurised the superior judiciary to the extent that it inclined much of its functioning in direct confrontation with the executive. Now this executive was not the “regular” executive, despite the shenanigans of constitutional rule. The irresponsible media gurus brought this struggle – some would say egged on by holding parallel media trials – right in the public domain thereby leaving little room for those essential ingredients of civilised governance: dialogue for co-existence, tolerance and flexibility. For instance routine administrative meetings of the executive officials with the judges became national headlines. Indeed if the Courts were not to deliver the ‘right’ verdicts they’d be set to fire. What was left, except a deadlock.

Most ignored that there was a unique development in order: for the first time, a military ruler was moving towards a civilian transition amid the growing specter of Talibanisation in the north west of the country. But this was not to be digested by the erstwhile jihad-glorifying media gurus who were keen to articulate the populist, anti-imperial propaganda. So we had a few ridiculous moments when talk show hosts were ‘negotiating’ with extremists in the Lal Masjid, or when the efforts of rapprochement by the country’s biggest political party and the military ruler were derided as a “sell-out” and a “let down” for the illusionary politics of confrontation. How else would General Hameed Gul get more air time than legitimate political parties; or a one-seat party leader be converted into a national anti-imperial superstar?

Today, a ‘confrontational’ columnist, bureaucrat turned politician, who also acted as a provincial minister under Musharraf holds forth on the necessity and virtues of confrontation. Or the wily Mustafa Khar, who changed parties and loyalties, lectured ad nauseam on the importance of loyalty to democratic principles. Indeed the nascent electronic media and short public memory could not remember the scenes of his oath-taking under Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

The populist plots are simplistic: kick out a man and things will change. Or that the US (backed by Zionists, of course) wants to make an Iraq out of Pakistan. Alas, we have not learnt anything – by bringing confrontation to this point, the aggrieved bourgeoisie has brought us close to 1969, where an agitation will not automatically result in a constitutional democracy but could pave the way for another bout of absolutism or at best another repeat of the 1990s. Bourgeois movements rarely result in structural changes, rhetoric and recitation of Faiz notwithstanding.

Perhaps it is too late now. The extreme measures are indefensible but there has been little reflection, if any, on the part of our vanguards of democracy. It remains to be seen what direction this new crisis will take, but let us hope that it does not repeat historical patterns. We do not want bloodshed on the streets, nor are we shopping for another saviour.

Published in The Friday Times (November 30-Dec 7, 2007)

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