The schizophrenia of Pakistani politics

By Razi AhmedGLOBAL pressure on Pakistan to do yet more in the war against terror and the wages of high energy prices compound the crisis of expectations from democracy. The country’s current crises are not a creation of the five-month-old democratic order.

And while some issues could have been resolved in a snap under a more authoritarian set-up, democracy is messy.

Within months of the new government taking over, but before the exit of Pervez Musharraf, a favourite parlour game was guessing the date of the government’s demise. Not just because of Mr Musharraf’s being there, but also because of the pairing of unlikely partners in a coalition and price hikes that Pakistan had not experienced in almost a decade. It is our impatience with democratic politics and the due process that impels us to look, again and again, towards Rawalpindi.

Grand narratives of doom and gloom — whether to castigate the previous regime or to emasculate the present one — dutifully peppered by our excitable media and coarse members of the coalition government serve only to reinforce the ‘stigma’ of democracy as moored in the popular imagination.

Case in point: a former coalition minister’s drubbing of Pakistan’s economy in front of an audience abroad in order to highlight his professional challenges and to rubbish his predecessors won the knee-jerk reaction of investors on the local bourses and led them to repatriate foreign capital. As a result, the work got needlessly harder and the democratic order was damaged by a campaign mentality and verbal diarrhoea.

The goals and successes of the infant government — securing Saudi oil payments’ deferment worth $5.9bn, reconciliation, charting a plan of transfer payments via the Benazir Income Support Scheme, plans to commute death sentences to life imprisonment, facilitating privatisation and the liberalisation of the economy coupled with balancing, safety nets — were dwarfed by the judges’ drama and the pulling down of the president. Now that Mr Musharraf is gone and the damaged democrats seem both satisfied and chastened, can we start accepting and seeing Pakistan as a democracy? Can we reconcile our polity with functioning democracy?

If that seems incredulous, then the Pakistani naysayer should take a page from the Indian political tome which has seen 61 years of uninterrupted democracy, with the exception of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. By and large, continuity and commitment to the democratic tradition have healed India’s internal schisms and enfranchised millions of its marginalised and dispossessed.

In praise of democracy, however, its contradictions, limitations and predicaments cannot and must not be condoned. And nowhere are these more apparent than in India itself.

An analysis of the Indian democracy mystique dispels the romantic notions harboured by our intelligentsia. A telling tale is disclosed by an Indian editor in a western weekly wherein the writer suggests that an anonymous army chief threw a spanner in the peace overtures to Pakistan recently — even though from a Pakistani perspective it was for once reassuring to learn that the spoilers did not come from its range of oft-maligned officers.

But the notion that extra-parliamentary appendages overhang Indian parliamentary sovereignty raises questions regarding the efficacy of the government and parliament. The eventual success, though, of Indian foreign policy that let its hawkish elements peter out was evidenced in the hitherto successful India-Pakistan rapprochement. Parliamentary sovereignty superseded individual whims.

Likewise, the editor pointed to the dominant role of the Indian Department of Atomic Agency in determining the progress on his country’s nuclear negotiations with the US. The rumbling thunder of the Left in the Indian parliament almost brought the coalition government down on the matter of the nuclear deal.

In practice, infighting on this and other issues — ranging from the privatisation of airports to labour reforms to retail deregulation to international affairs — have made Indian parliamentary proceedings nettlesome; but at another level the factoring in of stakeholders of all hues and shades has mitigated undue haste in nuclear statecraft. That, in turn, guarantees policy sustainability as opposed to pretty assemblages of houses of cards as seen in Pakistan’s post-military bouts.

All too often, Pakistanis chide their politicians for alleged corruption. On that basis, democracy is spurned in favour of the seemingly simple, hierarchical army juntas. The overthrow of democratic governments in the past is attributed to their alleged spate of monetary indulgences and excesses. That the abuse of power occurs is unequivocally condemnable. But that it could trigger the overthrow of an elected government via extra-parliamentary trappings is inexcusable.

While India is no exemplar of genuine democracy, nonetheless instances such as Rajiv Gandhi’s alleged role in the Bofors scandal, Tehelka’s riveting exposé on the BJP’s kickbacks, and government-sponsored horse-trading in the latest vote of no-confidence motion in the Indian parliament have not lured Indian generals to purge corruption or, for that matter, cleanse Indian democracy of cult figures such as Maharashtra’s Bal Thackeray, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi and Bihar’s Laloo Yadav.

Indeed, it feels odious to tolerate these thugs in the broader commitment to democracy. However, they are the unintended consequences of an empowered, enfranchised electorate. To suggest that pockets of the illiterate populace elect these morally hazardous, harlequin politicians is an orientalist statement. In the heart of enlightened Europe, Germany has elected rabid neo-Nazis and Italy has brought neo-fascists to the public realm. The saving grace of these countries’ political systems is the presence of checks and balances embedded in the democratic culture, minimising the risk to the ethos of the nation-state.

Our patience with democracy runs thin because of extra-democratic operatives ever willing to purge and sanitise the system. In an ironic hint of nostalgia for Gen Musharraf, one ex-PCO judge effusively, via an electronic channel, berated the present PPP-led government for allegedly being inimical to the idea of reinstatement of the judges (himself included). Such keen judicial harkening for the past cast doubts about democracy rooting itself in letter and spirit.
Source: Daily Dawn, 25/8/2008

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