What is the threat? What is the way out?

The News on Sunday

This is the time for massive political mobilisation as an antidote to the tyranny of a few

Not unlike good old Nero, who carried on with his self-involved pursuits while Rome burnt, our enlightened brigade from the Urdu and the English medium worlds have been quite busy with their hobbyhorses. With thousands of homes churning out a suicide bomber per minute, the national discourse or the flimsy excuse for it, has been truly remarkable. First came the minus one formula, backed by the ‘be-ghairat’ Kerry Lugar bill and now the centre of universe has shifted to the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).

If one were to follow the trails of verbosity and poisonous write-ups in the print and electronic media, the storyline is as simple as follows: one fine day, late Benazir Bhutto and her ‘corrupt’ husband sitting thousands of miles away from Pakistan issued the NRO to ‘protect’ their wealth. As if these political leaders in exile and wilderness had the legislative and executive authority to issue an Ordinance.

We cannot debate the Ordinance at this stage since the matter is now subjudice. However, even a child on a Pakistani street knows that a uniformed president and his khaki associates issued this Ordinance and participated in the ‘reconciliation’ dialogue between late Benazir Bhutto and the military establishment. Today the relentless, moralist media campaigns do not even mention these inconvenient truths. The issue at hand at one level is quite basic: a legitimate political leader with mass following was framed by the establishment twice over, then given a ‘reconciliation’ package and now after her death the perks have been withdrawn by the very same establishment.

This brings us to the larger question of the fundamental power imbalance that persists in Pakistan, i.e. between the unelected and elected institutions of the state. This time thanks to a robust civil society movement, the judiciary, hitherto a subordinate partner of the executive, has gained powers from the street and thus a redistribution of power has taken place since 2007. But this still does not augur well for a democratic future. For democracy remains a far, elusive goal despite all the rhetoric and hyped yearnings of our masses.

The unelected executive comprising the military and the civilian bureaucracy, a powerful judiciary has now been joined by a third unelected partner — the media. Leading media persons on a daily basis quote ‘insiders’, ‘sources’ and issue reports that are not contradicted by the ‘powerful’ elements of the civil-military establishment. At best, the servants of the state remain unaccountable and at the worst regurgitate the old script in vogue since the 1950s: that the politicians are incompetent, corrupt and security risks. The guardians of Pakistan ideology, therefore, have the moral right to get rid of them when they want. The list of NRO beneficiaries amply proves that — out of a thousands-long list, only a handful in comparative terms are politicians. The rest are all minions and top or under-dogs of the unelected executive.

The army expenditure is still not audited and the drain on the budget cannot be questioned. For if you talk of peace with India and amicable settlement of Kashmir dispute you are bound to be a traitor.

In a similar fashion, while the subordinate judiciary is accountable to the superior judiciary, the mechanisms of holding the superior judiciary accountable such as the Supreme Judicial Council are ineffectual. Since the vindictive reference of General Musharraf against the incumbent Chief Justice, the issue of questioning judges has become intensely political.

The mala fide reference that was filed by General Musharraf was thrown out by the Court through a short order issued on July 20, 2007 and the Chief Justice was restored. Ideally, after March 2009, as a matter of national priority and transparency the detailed judgment should have been issued to set the parameters of the operations of the Supreme Judicial Council. No institution within the constitutional scheme can dare ask that question.

The recent judgment whereby the Supreme Court sent several PCO judges home was another peculiar instance. The decision was bold and historic in many ways; however, one of the aggrieved parties was the bench itself. This case opened up several legal issues, which the constitutionalists will ponder about for years to come, not to mention the fact that the key culprits — General Musharraf, Shaukat Aziz and their legal eagles — have been let off despite the fact that they violated the Constitution and incarcerated honourable judges.

In these times, when the country is burning and militancy is at its peak, the priorities of the unelected institutions are curiously different. Peshawar has been turned into ruins, Lahore is hostage to fear, Islamabad is barricaded and every corner is unsafe and guess what the loose alliance of civil-military-judicial-media establishment are concerned about. The focus is now, as they say, to hang the dog after giving it a bad name.

To the credit of the political class, despite its relative lack of experience and shortsightedness, it stands together. Well, at least for now. Pakistan’s most popular leader, after the forced removal of Benazir Bhutto from the scene, stands firmly behind the democratic process and the regional political players are also not willing to play ball with the unelected state actors.

What is the threat? The non-state actors firmly entrenched in the country and its cultural ethos, are, also enemies of this legitimate political class. In fact, they want its physical elimination and they have started the process from the northwest. Take the case of hundreds of Awami National Party (ANP) workers and leaders who have been killed during the last two years. Or the Maliks and other tribesmen who have been completely eliminated from FATA?

All such power-revolutions in South Asia or Indus Valley have historically commenced from the Western frontiers. Sadly, insiders within Pakistan are abetting the current wave of medievalism and international power play. The non-state actors are defiant and waiting for a political vacuum. Their key financiers have been from the Middle East and the rhetorical Ummah but our spin doctors are keen to prove that this is the handiwork of Israel-US-India nexus.

So what is the way out, a rational mind would reflect. There is no option for the political parties but to get organised within and weed out the internal mess that they operate in. They need to be accountable to their constituents and immediately undertake measures to counter the torrent of disinformation and de-legitimisation. They must be clear on their objective: civilian ascendancy. Democracy is no magic bullet and the electoral and representative political frameworks cannot be compromised on any pretext.

The Charter of Democracy is a far-reaching framework that ought to be fully implemented and also widened in its ambit and ownership. All political parties must be brought within its fold. The provisions on army, judiciary and executive need to be operationalised at once. Of course, this requires a speedy passage of a constitutional bill that will undo the distortions inserted by the army and legitimised by the superior judiciary of yore.

Secondly, the parliament must also debate on media regulation. Its recent deliberations were helpful with respect to the coverage of terrorism. It must now refine and improve the PEMRA Ordinance and include a self-regulation mechanism that must be owned and managed by the media houses and journalists’ associations themselves.

Thirdly, the credibility of civilian government in these times rests on delivery of rights, entitlements and services. This includes security as a paramount state obligation. A restructuring of the civil service and security services is something that the federal and provincial governments must do.

Our given political and security mess denotes that the economy will refuse to grow at a rate required to match the population explosion and employment expectations. Thus, a robust, effective social protection regime is essential. Benazir Income Support Programme is a step in the right direction. It needs to be made far more credible.

Finally, this is also the time for massive political mobilisation as an antidote to the tyranny of a few. Political cadres are dying out after the unions and workers’ groups have been eliminated. The political parties need to counter the growing Talibanisation and extremism by getting down to the grassroots and reassuring that an inclusive, democratic Pakistan is the only way out for the survival of our fractured federation. Gilgit-Baltistan reform and Balcohistan package were great starters and now the Centre has to initiate a series of such legal, administrative, and financial packages for NWFP, FATA, PATA and other marginalised regions to establish that the civilian governments are responsive to the diversity of a federation and only they can keep such arrangements intact and workable.

The erroneous illusion of Pakistan’s civil society being a natural ally of democratic process is something to be questioned. Experience from authoritarian jurisdictions such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, amongst others, demonstrates that they prefer developmental civilian authoritarianism. In Pakistan, the clamouring for a strong man, a neo-Khomieni and a deliverer is an ever-present danger and 1999 coup and its allies within the civil society are recent history of our country.

Pakistan’s survival is now dependent on its internal political situation. Contrary to the conspiracy theories, no foreign power wants a country with nuclear weapons and lashkars of jihadis and its state dismantled. By fuelling systemic instability, our unelected institutions are yet again creating uncertainty and hindering economic progress. About time that we recognised this imperative and moved on.

Raza Rumi is a development professional and a writer based in Lahore. He blogs at www.razarumi.com and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama e-zines

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