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Course correction for Pakistani democracy

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Ayaz Amir

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) report which forms the basis of the Musharraf treason trial would be rejected by an area magistrate (the lowest magistrate in the judicial hierarchy) in the normal course of things. And were even a half-competent high court judge be asked to examine it, chances are he would recommend eggs and tomatoes in a public square for the authors of this inquiry. Such is its high calibre.

To think that this intellectual labour has led to the treason trial, and the trial is one of the major reasons for the souring of relations between the Nawaz Sharif (NS) government and the army, shows once more how from small beginnings great consequences can flow.

The European Union and elements in the US administration helped ignite a fire in Ukraine, without calculating the costs of the provocation they were offering Russia. When President Putin responded to this challenge, the west cried foul and accused him of expansionism.

The analogy is far-fetched but the basic point is the same: in politics and diplomacy it is seldom wise to start something whose end is not to be seen or whose outcome you cannot control.

The treason proceedings against Musharraf started, in slow motion, a process now beyond the reach and power of the NS government. Anyone in Ch Nisar’s place, if he had Nawaz Sharif’s true interests at heart, would have sent the FIA report back and insisted on a re-examination of the evidence. But a sharp sectarian incident had just taken place in Rawalpindi’s Raja Bazaar, and the interior minister may have been tempted (we can only surmise) to launch a diversionary move by announcing the commencement of the trial.

This may have served a temporary purpose but it has led to long-term consequences, including the present rupture between the civil government and the army.

Other factors have now weighed in, the rupture getting deeper. But that’s when it began…all on the basis of the FIA’s so-called investigative report. If the Nuremburg trials were left to the FIA, it would have said only Hitler was responsible. Goering, Himmler, Martin Bormann, Albert Speer et al knew nothing about what was happening.

Why did the Musharraf trial happen? Because Nawaz Sharif thought that after appointing a new army chief he could do pretty much as he pleased. Events are proving him wrong…and this is all to the good.

The army was once supreme and its power needed to be tempered. And it was, by (1) the restoration of democracy post-Musharraf; (2) the birth of a strong media; and (3) the emergence of an independent judiciary. The situation then swung to the other extreme: the media and the judiciary, and even democracy at times, going overboard and behaving arrogantly. This called for a new re-balancing and, less by design than accident, this is what we are seeing.

Can anyone deny that the judiciary under Milord Chaudhry had gone overboard, behaving as a supra-executive? As for the black-coat battalions, intoxicated by their movement against Musharraf – which many of us joined because it was the only anti-Musharraf thing happening at the time – became the new national boxing champions, their skill at the use of their fists surpassing their knowledge or use of the law.

Thus was born a new mutual admiration society: the media revelling in its new-found power, their lordships constantly holding forth from the bench, their random observations the stuff of newspaper headlines – their lordships often taking their cue, amazing as it may seem, from the media, and the media triply-magnifying the words and judgements of their lordships.

And the government of the day, the Zardari dispensation, was helpless before this combination. True, it carried a burden of corruption and incompetence on its shoulders. But its plight was made much worse by the afore-mentioned combination. Against it stronger dispensations would have faltered.

This incestuous atmosphere led to another consequence: allowing many optimists to proclaim the birth of a new Pakistan in which coups and extra-constitutionalism were things of the past. The army was still there, the number of its divisions still the same. But as far as its public profile was concerned it had receded into the shadows.

Old habits dying hard, the ISI still tried its hand at the odd political intrigue, Memogate a prime example of this. But this ISI-instigated intrigue was also supported by the same combination of the judiciary and the media. So even when the intrigue failed, it left undisturbed the baleful influence of the combo.

We can thus reflect that whereas, formerly, arrogance and hubris were largely the preserves of the army, they became during the last 6-7 years the province of the judiciary and the media (with the fist-waving knights of the legal profession not far behind). Optimists called this a revolution. Never was a make-believe revolution more easily achieved, and more confusedly proclaimed.

But what swings one way must swing the other way too. With the departure of Milord Chaudhry there was a sudden drop in the judiciary’s interfering ways. With the Musharraf trial and events subsequent to it, culminating in the tensions we have seen between the government and the army – tensions which have yet to be resolved – the over-reach of the media is coming under scrutiny…also under attack. In countering this challenge the media, for its own good and in its own interests, should draw a distinction between media over-reach and freedom of expression.

History doesn’t advance in a straight line. It proceeds in dialectical fashion: action and reaction, ebb and tide, point and counterpoint. Modern democracy (as opposed to Greek democracy) is itself the product of struggle and tension between English barons and English kings, the power of the one constraining and balancing the power of the other.

We have had a constitution since 1973 but we are still trying to find a balance in our democracy – a balance not only between civil and military but within the domain of democracy itself. Arbitrariness and wilfulness are not just features of military interventions but characteristics ingrained in our democratic performance, democracy used as a shield and label behind which crouch the twin demons of corruption and incompetence.

On such a flaky basis as the FIA inquiry the Musharraf treason trial comes across as no shining beacon of the triumph of rule of law. It reads more like a settling of scores. In the army’s reaction to the trial the government is being taught a lesson in realism – a lesson, alas, Mian Sahib always seems to stand in need of receiving.

On the larger political canvas too what is happening should be no cause for alarm. Zardari is simply not interested in challenging Nawaz Sharif, not out of any love for democracy but because he has powerful business and real-estate interests to protect in Sindh, especially Karachi. Ever a realist, those interests have a more powerful attraction for him than any nonsense about re-establishing his party in Punjab. For all practical purposes, the PPP in Punjab is dead.

A vacuum has thus arisen but, no matter under what tutelage or patronage, it is being filled by the new cacophony we are hearing from the right: Imran, Qadri, Shujaat Hussain, etc. Nawaz Sharif is in no danger of ouster, not unless he gets more heedless. Through knocks both gentle and hard he is merely being taught the limits of the permissible…and the doable.


Article published in THE NEWS on 16th May, 2014

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