May 072008

It is simplistic to assume governments are elected to execute the ‘will’ of the people. Governments are elected to govern, as they best see fit in all the circumstances, and this often means taking unpopular steps

For six weeks now I have been reading and watching, with ever increasing dismay, the hype whipped up by the media over the issue of the judges.

Political talk shows and tabsaras dominate our evening’s TV programming, in any case. But, practically day after day, on every news channel, and often on as many as three different programmes the same evening on some channels, all one could watch were endless variations on the same theme, as some minor development or the other served as the excuse to launch an entirely fresh analysis of the ‘crisis’. One popular channel monotonously airs a specially prepared emotional ulti-ginti clip, complete with a Farida Khanum voice-over of hum daykhein gay and a Quaid-e Azam portrait shedding real tears.

What should I make of these daily instalments of a ‘Big Brother’-type reality TV show, where the storyline, as in those vacuous soap serials, is more froth than substance, and given to endless meandering? Can that illusion of inching forward incrementally, whether by accident or design, be sustained? Was it any more than mere infotainment programming, on the cheap and easy, for a Pakistani public that is passionately politicised and highly partisan? Or did the media (particularly the TV channels) get carried away once again by its self-perceived role as the only real articulator of the ‘true’ will of the people?

I think about such matters not because there is any whiff of mala fides in the air (for we are all a passionately patriotic lot); nor because the issue of the judiciary is not vitally important for us a nation; and, nor even because I agreed or disagreed with most of the analyses. After all, in a democracy, it is natural for the media to be a sort of unofficial opposition. Rather, what concerned me was how, once again, a complex issue was being presented in simple and emotional terms; and how the possibility of failure to implement a particularly favoured simplistic solution within a given deadline was projected as being tantamount to thwarting the will, and mandate, of the 160 million awam.

One other irritating aspect of the matter was the step-motherly treatment meted out in comparison by the media to what I consider the far more important crises facing the nation: inflation and the power shortage. Here was something the electronic media could really have got its teeth into. But, beyond the obligatory bewildered sound bites from a disenchanted public seeking miracles from a democratic government, how much solid analysis and comment was forthcoming to educate a restless and volatile public on issues that could rapidly spiral out of control because of their explosive potential for social unrest? But who cares? Does our psyche not prefer politics to economics?

But let us get back to the so-called judicial crisis. Like everyone else, I too have my opinions on this subject. But I have refrained from airing them publicly – preferring instead to be first enlightened through the public debate – largely because I was not one hundred percent clear on all the possible legal complexities.

Did all that watching and reading help? Only marginally, I would say. Why? Because very few of the pundits (the likes of Mr Khalid Anwar and Dr Ranjha being the rare exceptions that prove the rule) made any serious effort to answer to my satisfaction certain pretty obvious questions that have troubled me throughout this debate. For the rest, it was all about, in effect, partisan politics.

Ironically, I note that though these legal complexities that worried some people seldom got an airing while the clock was ticking on the 30-day deadline, they are now being given the importance they initially deserved. Why now and not earlier? Why does only failure force us to look at the wider picture?

A ‘just’ demand, a ‘principled’ stand, and an asooli mauqaf holds great emotional appeal for us, damn the practical consequences. Such a high ‘moral’ stance may be admirable in private life. In the public domain it is often a recipe for disaster, for it invites conflict. Politics – particularly modern day democratic politics – is, essentially, a messy and unsatisfactory business that cries out for accepting incomplete solutions, incremental progress, and partial victories.

In the modern outlook, the world is not divided into friends and enemies; the division is between associates and competitors. But what appeals to our mindset are unrealistic fantasies of foreign policy, the principled boycott of elections, and the insistence that we will have no truck whatsoever with an illegitimate President and Supreme Court.

There is much glib talk, particularly from the PMLN, about ‘a mandate’ from the people to ‘restore’ the judges. But let us not confuse the issue of an independent judiciary that will deliver justice, with the separate problem of rectifying the monster situation that caused much suffering, created by the illegal and outrageous actions of the President last November. The two issues are not organically linked, contrary to what the leaders of the lawyers’ movement would have us believe in their passion for their cause. Besides, this talk of a ‘mandate’ is also confusing. What ‘mandate of the people’ are we talking about if you tally up the votes piled up by the PMLQ, MQM etc. (not to mention the PPP), who surely did not contest the election on this single issue?

In any case, it is simplistic to assume governments are elected to execute the ‘will’ of the people (even though you surely cannot get elected if you espouse the unpopular). Governments are elected to govern, as they best see fit in all the circumstances, and this often means taking unpopular steps.

The lawyers’ movement – and it cannot be thanked enough – has done its work in galvanising the populace to send a powerful message to those forces that represent the ugly face of authoritarianism. But virtue – and sacrifice – must often, in the public domain, be its own reward. In the nature of things, the baton must now be passed to the politicians, for it is not movements but governments that make and implement policy.

Let us not therefore build up the 12th of May as another make-or-break day for the country. Yes, I admit this whole difficult issue of the judiciary has been reduced to somewhat of a farce as a result of everyone going out on a limb, what with deadlines, ringing declarations of principle, and murmurs of presidential conspiracies. But then how many of our ruling class have ever demonstrated political maturity, that we should have expected better? That said, I still say, let the politicians sort out this mess as they see fit.

One final thought: I wonder how many of us still remain unimpressed by the low-key manner in which Mr Zardari – demonstrating exemplary maturity, flexibility, and restraint, through both actions and words – has maintained an assured grip on all the bewildering political developments?

The writer is a businessman

Source: Daily Times, 7/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:41 pm

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