Unlearnt lessons-By Cyril Almeida

POLITICS 101: compromise good; confrontation bad. It’s a lesson our democracy brigade refuses to learn. The complaint that the long march should have achieved something more is really code for wanting to give the government a black eye.
If a frenzy had been whipped up on Parade Avenue, parliament had been stormed and the damn politicians had been taught a lesson, the long march would have been a success. But the marchers dispersed peacefully without getting their way, leaving the march a dismal failure and an exercise in futility.

In Pakistan, if you think you are right then you must get your way. Trouble is everyone seems to think that they are right. Living to fight another day, perhaps even another battle, is for the weak, the gutless, or worse, the collaborators. Was the long march a success? Yes, without a doubt. It’s a pity few are willing to acknowledge the fact.

Five years ago, on Feb15, 2003, ten million people gathered in sixty countries to protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. London saw a million people gather in Hyde Park; a million and a half turned out in Barcelona; Rome witnessed three million on its streets; and Australia half a million. They were protesting against the relentless drumbeat of war emanating from the White House which climaxed in shock and awe a month later.

In comparison with the Iraq war, the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar and his band of judges is small hat. Yet the anti-Iraq war protesters disbanded peacefully at the end of the day, and were stronger for it. The protests have gone down in history as an awesome show of dissent. Patrick Tyler, chief correspondent of the New York Times, famously declared that there may be two superpowers on the planet: the US and world public opinion.

Or take a look at the blasphemy law here in Pakistan. It is an odious law, jealously guarded by the mullah brigade. The law is bravely opposed by human rights activists and the few good people amongst us. Forget constitutional imbalances and illegitimate power, the blasphemy law is, literally, a death sentence. But nobody opposing the law is talking about storming parliament or cuffing the law minister for not revoking it.

Somehow opposing the lawyers’ movement elicits vitriol that exceeds anything thrown at the Iraq war and the blasphemy law. I got an earful from a protagonist of the lawyers’ movement. I didn’t know how many articles of the constitution were affected by the 17th, 8th and 5th amendments. I didn’t know how many missing persons the Supreme Court was looking into and hadn’t read the court record. I didn’t know that the Charter of Democracy wasn’t effectively dead after BB played footsie with Musharraf. My command, or lack thereof, of the minutiae of the constitutional package rendered anything I have to say on it wrong.

My sin: suggesting that no charter, declaration or constitutional package was relevant to what the politicians would ultimately do. And that the constitution’s position on coups, judges, prime ministers and treason is irrelevant when a man in uniform wants to get his way.

Another lawyer — with degrees from Yale, Harvard and Cambridge — claimed, after a little prodding, that a bit of mayhem on the streets of Islamabad in front of the cameras would have put real pressure on the government.

The law is not a joke. It is serious business and requires dedicated study. Neither is the entire Pakistani constitution a joke. But the fact is that this particular round of constitutional rejiggering was precipitated for no other purpose than to create a specific set of circumstances to keep a specific set of people out and another set in. That’s it. There was no higher cause or logic. If you want to call it a charade, go ahead. It is. And a farce, a joke and daylight robbery. Musharraf and company are dancing on the graves of jurisprudence.

It is galling. Worse, it is galling to be told that fighting beyond a point is bad. Why should one side play by the rules when the other side — the Musharrafs and their collaborators — refuses to do so? What good is working for stability if the other side is creating instability? Well, that’s how a democratic system, even a highly developed one, works. You can’t pummel the other side into obeying the rules. You nurse your wounds, you campaign, you lobby, and you lie in wait until the next elections.

The fact is that a space has been created in Pakistan for indirect civilian rule through elected representatives — your regular, vanilla flavoured democracy the world over. The whys of this reality are for political scientists to debate. It could be that the military is suffering from governance fatigue. It could be that the people have found their democratic voice. It could be that the Americans want it. It could be all of the above. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that this space exists.

We have had relatively fair elections; we have a National Assembly that is relatively representative of the electorate; we have two genuinely popular political parties that dominate the assembly; and we have two leaders of those parties who are unquestionably in control and are talking to each other. The lawyers genuinely want to add another element to this reasonable mixture: a relatively independent judiciary.

We would all like to add the elements of democracy as quickly as possible and must constantly look for opportunities to do so. But the issue is also one of trajectory — are we headed in the right direction or not. And while undiluted, unconditional reinstatement of the judges is a course, it isn’t the only course. In fact, given the vehemence of Musharraf and the reluctance of Asif, it’s sure to send the trajectory of democracy into a downward spiral. And there is no doubt that waiting in the wings are people who can inflict new lows and new forms of damage on the country.

The lawyers have expressed what most Pakistanis feel: a deep unease about who we are and what we have achieved. But those mocking the lawyers for failing and counselling them to raise the stakes aren’t pinning their hopes on democracy; they are hoping for change brought about somehow, anyhow. Eight years ago the winds of change blew in Musharraf; today it is Chief Justice Iftikhar. But why not the politicians?

John Lennon saw Vietnam and just wanted to give peace a chance. For eight years, ugliness has stalked this land. Can’t we just give politics a chance now? n


Daily Dawn, 25/6/2008

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