A March story —Sarah Humayun

The price of street politics has become high, perhaps unbearably so. I’m not sure if this judgement is wrong, but after the events of the last week, it should at least be up for debate

Reactions to the bloodless and coupless conclusion to the long march show just how nerve wracking the last week was, especially for the Pakistani commentariat. Nawaz Sharif opened a Pandora’s box, and, big surprise, hope is the main thing that seems to have come out of it. Politicians courted ‘instability’, recklessly and selfishly (said last week’s received wisdom), and got away with it.

The mood in Pakistan seems to have lifted. Isn’t it time perhaps to re-examine our own assumptions about what politicians in a country like ours, faced with a perilous security situation, haunted by a political history of intrigues and opportunism, can or cannot afford to do?

It’s amusing to note how many of the voices from the press-pulpit who were berating (in or between the lines) Zardari’s goading of the PMLN and the PMLN’s refusal to reach a political compromise off the street, have been soothed after Sunday. That’s nice. But what were the grounds of their anxieties in the first place?

It has to be admitted they were not frivolous. A confrontation between NS and AZ will spiral into a deadlock, deadlock into coup or change of government, disorder would follow, militarists and terrorists waiting in the wings would move in for the kill, the army would be distracted into restoring order if not worse, and politics would wreck any chance of peace.

This indeed might have happened. On the other hand the present outcome was also always possible. Press speculation on the future trajectory of politics, like witch doctors on the weather, understandably has a vested interest in simple, prescriptive and right. So the following outcome, as the more unlikely one, was barely entertained:

A dismissed elected government is hitching its fortunes to a popular semi-political cause to exhibit its strength and the public’s opposition to the centre’s dictatorial policies. The ruling party at the centre will find itself at odds with an electorate that it had recently made common cause with, pay heed to it’s political future and to its ability to sustain unilateral action in the Punjab in the face of clear public hostility, and relent. In which case a hybrid balance would be reached. A wrong would be corrected out of parliament and in the streets, perhaps even helped by other ‘extra-constitutional’ forms of mediation, hence not strengthening that critically important institution. But, a power grab would be prevented or diluted through a demonstration of public will. In a way, progress would be made beyond the prevalent understanding of democratic politics — that they are a means to get politicians elected, and should be superseded by a free hand to govern, in any manner judged politic, after a government has been sworn in.

This possibility was not entertained. Nobody likes to sound like a softie. The Pakistani press is the happy hunting ground of aggressive optimists or aggressive pessimists, tough guys who’d rather talk deals and games.

The preference for deals — a word that is now losing its negative connotations — is another clear legacy of the Musharraf era. If accommodations are to be made, it is best that they be made out of the streets, in the form of politic deals.

Perhaps seen now as the alternative to the kind of ‘instability’ that we have been threatened with in the last week, they are considered the prudent course of action. A paradigm of politic action is replacing politics as they used to be understood, for better and worse. And of course there is no desire to see more violence and bloodshed in the streets. Anything to avert that.

So: the price of street politics has become high, perhaps unbearably so. I’m not sure if this judgement is wrong, but after the events of the last week, it should at least be up for debate.

A lot of things about the way the long march turned out were just surprising. The reluctance of the police to get rough with the protestors, the absence of terrorism or street violence, the willingness of the participants to make good on their word and call it a day after only one of the real aims of the long march — the restoration of the CJ — had been accomplished. The next round will hopefully be fought in parliament.

When so much depended on luck and the incalculable, can we draw any lessons from the long march regarding the danger of ‘instability’ in Pakistani politics, whether it ought be considered a cardinal sin or room be made for it as a legitimate political strategy with both pros and cons?

Or shall we give more thought to how conflict can be managed, as an abiding, double-edged and unpredictable component of politics, rather than writing it off as the unthinkable ‘in our present circumstances’?

Sarah Humayun is a freelance journalist who lives in and away from Lahore

Reproduced by permission of DT


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