President Zardari must win this battle of perceptions if he wants to succeed with the admirable agenda that he outlined in the historic session of parliament on September 20
Addressing a joint session of parliament — the “symbol of democratic power” as he put it — President Zardari spoke of the need of nurturing democracy’s tender sapling. This was not only a realistic metaphor but also a devastating indictment of six decades of our national history.
Considering that the state of Pakistan was created through democratic processes — general elections of 1945, votes by provincial legislatures, referendums — overseen by a colonial power wedded to the ballot, it should by now have been one of those mighty trees that seem to live forever, the roots of which should have bound our people and federating units in indissoluble unity.
Instead, when the new democratically elected president rose to revive the cardinal constitutional convention of speaking to the National Assembly and the Senate together, what stretched all around us was a social and political wasteland left behind by a sterile dictatorship.
President Zardari rightly laid emphasis on the structural aspects of the democratisation process. Had he dwelt more on the substance of it rather than the form, he would have appeared to be curtailing parliament’s sovereign choice. His predecessor had cared to address it only once during his long tenure and filled the remaining occasions demanding the fulfilment of this particular obligation with disdain.
Zardari described himself as the first president in Pakistan’s history who was willing to shed the powers accumulated by his predecessor and asked parliament to set up a committee of all the parties to “revisit” the main instruments of autocratic rule — Article 58-2(b) and the 17th amendment to the Constitution. He also made far-reaching comments on Balochistan, using them as an illustration of distortions in our federal structure. By doing so he flagged the constitutional space that needs the urgent consensual attention of parliament in a manner that transcends party politics.
What happened in Islamabad only a few hours later, however, made it manifestly evident that national survival was threatened not just by the unsavoury constitutional legacy of past dictators that parliament in its collective wisdom could easily legislate away, but also by dark and demonic forces that have an indigenous and regional provenance. In just about the most audacious act since the fateful assassination of PPP’s martyred leader, Benazir Bhutto, the terrorists tried to turn the day that should have marked the triumph of democracy into a day of national grief.
There are many perspectives on the events of December 27 last year and September 20 now, but what is common is a horrific repudiation of democracy as a polity, a way of communal life and a method of ordering the affairs of the state. The destruction of the Marriott hotel looked like a last minute substitute for a horrendous crime that was probably originally designed to be perpetrated against parliament itself.
In either case, this was beyond doubt the planned antithesis to President Zardari’s thesis. It was a loud proclamation of a new fact. Hitherto democratic governments in Pakistan were brought down by the hubris of men on horseback, the arrogant generals who pretended to be saviours. Henceforth the greatest challenger may be from men of violence committed to anarchy.
In a series of destructive actions — directed alike against the people, the emerging political order and, indeed, the armed forces — since the day Benazir Bhutto returned from a long exile, they have made it known that they reject the basis of our state and all the civil and military institutions through which it projects itself. In committing the terrible atrocity of September 20, they served notice that the agenda for national reconciliation and reconstruction outlined by the head of state to parliament was irrelevant to their programme and that they had the will and the resources to wage a long war against the state of Pakistan.
Over the years, the state of Pakistan has been hobbled by what is described every day as a growing deficit in the “ownership” of this war. This deficit was born of the disdain with which General Musharraf treated the people and the political class. He had embarked upon it not from any deep convictions about state and society but because it provided him with the shortest route to Washington’s support for yet another dictatorship in Pakistan. It was only a few weeks ago that he finally departed from the all-too-powerful presidency and thus the political government has not had much time to put its own distinctive stamp on national policies. Arguably, September 20 was the day for that authentic signature, that desperately needed imprimatur of a new order.
From another perspective — a perspective that the terrorists exploit endlessly — the political government has taken too long to register its own imprint that would differentiate it from the Musharraf era. It may well have under-estimated the mass hostility to that era as well as the demand for change.
In a world where perceptions reign, two trends mark the political scene today. Partly because of its own preference for the softer tones of reconciliation rather than the strident ones of revenge and partly because of external pressures, the political government has not worked hard enough to herald a new era of innovation. The second trend is an insidious campaign from within and without that it is old wine in a new bottle, that it is as much chained to an alien “imperialist project” as Musharraf and that the great upsurge of February 18 has been deliberately frittered away to serve internal and external vested interests.
That this is grist to the mills of the propaganda machine of the terrorists can be palpably felt in every nook and corner of the country. President Zardari must win this battle of perceptions if he wants to succeed with the admirable agenda that he outlined in the historic session of parliament on September 20 and if he is to defeat the rival agenda written by the terrorists in the cinders of the Marriott the same day.
Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former foreign secretary who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Times, 22/9/2008