Our democrats need to be more ‘democratic’
Pakistan is a complex country. Certain developments make people optimistic about the future but some developments cause pessimism and create a strong feeling among a large number of concerned people that Pakistan is drifting towards anarchy. It is difficult to suggest which way Pakistan is likely to go in the future. Perhaps we can talk of several possible futures for Pakistan from the worst case scenario to an optimistic view of the future.
Pakistan can now claim many distinctions to its credit that make it a different country. Some of these distinctions suggest much hope for democracy. However, other distinctions raise strong doubts about the future of democracy. Some of the distinctions include:
1. It is for the first time in Pakistan’s history that a purely civilian government presented its fifth and final budget that is going to be approved by mid-June.
2. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has become the longest serving civilian prime minister, staying in office longer than Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan. However, Gilani is a more controversial prime minister than Liaquat Ali Khan.
3. There have been more allegation of corruption against President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani and some members of their families than any previous head of state or heard of government in Pakistan. The media and the opposition are focused so much on this issue that there is no talk of how the making of the economic empire of the Sharif brothers coincides with their years in power going back to the early 1980s. Some other civilians and ex-army top brass accumulated wealth in the 1980s and the 1990s. Many factors contributed to this trends which included kickback from access to corridors of power during military or civilian rule, distribution of land/plots by the government and especially the military to its officers, the Afghan war, government contracts and real-estate business and manpower trade to the Middle East.
4. Pakistan’s Supreme Court is the only highest court in the present-day world that wants to put its sitting head of state on trial in a foreign country. When the federal government did not initiate the proceedings for that purpose, it convicted the sitting prime minister of contempt of court. Now, the opposition wants the Supreme Court to disqualify the prime minister from holding his office. Many in Pakistan argue that the superior judiciary’s over-activism and frequent interference in the domain of the executive is destabilising for the federal government whose performance is already poor.
5. Pakistan is a unique country for another reason. The chief minister of a province, the Punjab, is publicly calling upon the people of his province to revolt against the federal government on account of shortage of electric power. Some such rallies have resulted in violence against private and public property.
6. When the budget was presented in the National Assembly on June 1, the PML(N) attempted to disrupt the session and some of its active members engaged in scuffles with the PPP members. They also exchanged punches. Only a small number of members joined directly in the fight and it did not degenerate to the extent what happened in the National Assembly in September 1958 when the members threw assembly furniture on each other. The Deputy Speaker was seriously injured who later died in the hospital. 7. The PPP’s governance and economic management does not show any sign of improvement. The PPP has demonstrated time and again that it prefers political convenience and partisan use of state patronage over professionalism and competence in managing state affairs.
Most of these developments do not augur well for socio-political coherence and democracy. Political polarisation has intensified to the extent that not many people are willing to examine the fast growing political and economic drift in a dispassionate manner. The political discourse is confrontational and rude; the political adversaries want to humiliate each other. They often engage in shouting matches and heckling so that the rival party’s spokesperson is not able to speak. The senior leaders of political parties are very supportive of noisy leaders who are hard-hitting in their political exchanges with the political adversaries. There are well known names in all major parties whose presence in political talk show is a sure guarantee that no sensible conversation will be possible.
The underlying consideration of the political dialogue is not the exploration of the solutions to the acute socio-economic problems but to hold each other responsible for the decay and degeneration of Pakistani economy and politics. Therefore, the rival political leaders condemn each other and point out what they consider the flaws in the policies of the rival political party. They never suggest better and credible policy strategies for any problem, i.e. electricity shortages, lack of investment and growing violence. etc.
The most unfortunate situation has developed in the Punjab where the chief minister is calling upon the people to take to streets against the failure of the federal government to provide electricity. He also wants the president and prime minister to quit. On June 3, some newspaper carried a big size colour advertisement that projected the chief minister’s call for agitation against the federal government on the electricity issue.
If agitation and protest is patronised and political confrontation is encouraged by a government or a political party as a policy, negative politics becomes an integral part of the political culture. Agitation, protest marches, road-blocks and attacks on public and private property become a normal political activity. If people develop the habit of agitation for anything they do not like, some groups will always find a cause to resort to protest, agitation and violence.
If the culture of intolerance and violence is not checked neither the budget nor who rules Pakistan will mean anything. Internal disorder and anarchy will spread so widely that the writ of the government would mean little outside the federal and provincial capitals. The state will lose its primacy and it will have to negotiate with powerful local groups and armed bands and religious zealots entrenched in different parts of the country. It will become irrelevant which party rules Pakistan or how Supreme Courts treats the prime minister and the federal government. The state institutions and political leaders should stop attacking each other. Pakistan needs to develop positive points of distinction and democratic political culture if Pakistan is to function as a nation-state.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.