May 092008

Ayaz Amir
If a single party had emerged clear victor in the Feb 18 elections Pakistan would have been in real, deep trouble. Our problem has not been parliamentary, presidential or military government. It has been the concentration of a power in a single centre or a lone pair of hands.

General Pervez Musharraf was a disaster–as were Generals Zia, Yahya and Ayub before him–because he was a law unto himself and he proved too inadequate to intelligently wield the power placed by circumstances or destiny in his hands. Zia, Yahya and Ayub would have made competent corps commanders or competent army chiefs. They had it not in them to be competent leaders.

Our experience shows that even democratic leaders tend to behave like monarchs. There is little democracy within their parties and when they graduate to government they bring the same habits of mind to the conduct of national affairs. If there is no system of check-and-balance in one’s mind, if restraint and moderation are not part of one’s mental makeup, no amount of constitutional provisions can make men or women in positions of power behave with restraint or due regard for that concept so alien to our national temperament: the rule of law which means no more than this that there is such a thing as the law and that it applies equally to everyone, high or low, rich or poor.

So thank God for a split mandate and a governing arrangement comprising different components. True, this arrangement more often than not gives the impression of a fragile bark tossing about on a stormy sea, waiting for an excuse to split. But actually it is a sturdier vessel than cynics, critics and pundits are prepared to give it credit for. Its single greatest asset–even more than its popular mandate–is its diversity, the fact that power instead of being concentrated at one point or a single centre is spread and diffused.

The fiasco over the by-polls’ postponement (now reversed) proves the point. Imagine my friend Rehman Malik left to his own devices and allowed to run riot on his own. The government and his party, the PPP, would be in serious trouble. But in this case he tried to pull a fast one (at least that being the general impression) but his bluff was called when the Frontier chief minister revealed Malik’s part in the affair.

There were red faces in the PPP because they did not know what was happening. Info minister Sherry Rehman (who I must say is proving a capable minister) did a good job of losing little time in condemning the postponement as a ‘conspiracy’ (a much-used word, by the way, these days) and the PML-N, also suspecting a conspiracy, went livid.

Now whoever was behind this fiasco, or what the precise motives were for getting the polls delayed, remains to be discovered. But the important thing is that the postponement has been reversed, a tribute to the system of checks and balances inherent in a coalition such as we have at present. To his credit, however, my friend Malik is showing no signs of embarrassment at all, a tribute no doubt to his composure or tough outward armour.

True, the economic situation remains bleak. Prices of basic commodities continue to rise and power cuts are worse than ever. And there is a shortage of ‘atta’ (flour) in many parts of the country. The rupee’s value is falling and this should worry us because if the spiral continues we could have worse inflation than we have yet experienced. I do hope Ishaq Dar (finance minister) has some answers to this.

But the ‘terrorism’ front, its flashpoint Waziristan, is quieter than it has been for the last few years and although no definite truce has been signed with the Frontier Che Guevara, Baitullah Mahsud, on-off talks–sometimes promising, sometimes not so promising–are still going on. This also is a reflection of the scattered power reality in the country today. If the army had been calling the shots completely, if Musharraf still wielded the power that he did when he wore his uniform, and if there wasn’t an Awami National Party government in the Frontier, we would have been hearing more from the ‘terrorist’ front.

Even Musharraf has his uses. Stripped of much of his power, he is performing a new role, that of national scarecrow, a reminder to all political forces that if they get it wrong again–that is, if they fail–they should know what to expect: a resurgence of praetorian-ism. He also serves useful target practice. Every time a political leader, even of the third or fourth rank, falls short of words or issues he takes a swipe at Musharraf and hurls a stone or a shoe in his direction.

Voltaire said that even if there was no God (na-ouzubillah) we would have to invent one, such being the need of the human race for divine solace or protection. The same is true of the devil. If there wasn’t the idea of the devil, we would have to invent it, to complete the dichotomy of good and evil. The same, alas, is true of our beloved president. If he weren’t around, a convenient target of criticism, we would have to invent someone like him.

So I think we need not grieve or despair beyond a certain point. The situation on so many fronts is bad but we only have to look at neighbouring Afghanistan to realize that it could be much worse. And who says a transition from years of military authoritarianism to something approaching democracy is easy. It can be a messy affair but all said and done it has so far proved to be a reasonably smooth transition.

Consequently, this coalition is the best thing that could have happened to Pakistan. It’s not just a question of sharing the burden of problems the nation faces. On the practical plane, nothing else would have worked. As for single party rule, under the circumstances it would be a disaster.

Yes, the judges’ issue is proving a tough nut to crack. The kind of solution the nation would have been the happiest with–the complete restoration of the Nov 2, 2007, judiciary and the sacking of the new judges sworn in under Musharraf’s emergency decree–we won’t get because the PPP and the PML-N hold divergent views on this issue. But the fact that the two parties despite their differences continue to search for a middle path shows their seriousness about preserving the coalition.

Soothsayers and pundits who give the coalition six or seven months are wrong. If the coalition had to break it would have broken by now. If it hasn’t it is because both the leaders, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, know in their heart of hearts that there is no alternative. It is either this arrangement with all its imperfections and confusions or it is back to square one, the country once more given over to the dark spirits of military authoritarianism.

And shouldn’t we heed, if only for once, the sentiments of the people who don’t want another Musharraf but who also have no stomach for the sight of politicians at each other’s throats? The country wants peace and stability and a measure of good government. It doesn’t expect or want miracles because the people of Pakistan have given up on what used to be their dreams. They just want the basics right: atta at affordable prices, an economy that provides a measure of employment, improved law and order and an end to Pakistan’s involvement in somebody else’s ‘war on terror’.

Still, how are these basics incompatible with the aim of undoing the effects of Musharraf’s emergency decree of Nov 3, 2007? How are these things incompatible with the restoration of the deposed judges? The coalition made a pledge with the nation that without ifs and buts the judges would be brought back. Now the coalition partners are stuck in a minefield of ifs and buts.

It is not the deposed judges whose stature is being diminished. No, they stand tall. But by indulging in a game of prevarication–at times baffling, at times downright cynical–it is the coalition partners who are reducing themselves in the eyes of the Pakistani people. There is still time to retrieve the situation but not if paladins like Commissar Malik call the shots.

Courtesy: The News, 9/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:42 am

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