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Progress, in slow motion

September 12, 2013

WATCHING Pakistan progress over the past 66 years has been like viewing a 16 mm movie — projected in slow motion. Each frame of its history inches forward, with images of technicolour democracy spliced between sepia sections of military rule, and occasionally interposed between them, short spurts of interim governments.

The residual impression is one of disjointed sequences, put together by a ham-handed, unskilled editor.

Over six and a half decades, it has taken four governors-general and 11 presidents (and two acting presidents) to have a president who could complete a full five-year term.

It has taken 17 prime ministers (excluding six who officiated on an interim basis) and there has yet to be one who has been able to or allowed to complete his term. Shaukat Aziz will claim that he was the exception, but his longevity as prime minister came less from a public mandate than the patience of his mentor Gen Pervez Musharraf.

And it has taken a number of assemblies/Majlis-i-Shoora to reach a point of maturity where a National Assembly could complete its full five-year term. Pakistan’s political history can be summed up in a phrase: democracy delayed or denied, or decried.

It has now, however, reached the level that India had in 1977 when Ms Indira Gandhi, following her post-Emergency electoral defeat, handed over power (reluctantly) to the Janata Party, and three years later, in 1980, following its rejection at the polls by a disgruntled public, the Janata Party returned the favour.

Such orderly transitions are the litmus test of democracy. “Any fool can hold elections,” an Indian parliamentarian explained at the time, “that is simply a matter of logistics. The true test of our maturity as a democracy was when Mrs Gandhi lost and she handed the reins of government to the Janata Party, and then when Janata lost, they gave power back to her.”

In that sense, the Indians learned the finer lessons of Westminster-style parliamentary traditions comparatively quickly. It took the British themselves the decapitation of a king (Charles I), the deposing of another (his second son James II), and the abdication of a third (Edward VIII) to calibrate the relationship between the monarchy and parliament to its present equipoise. And it took hundreds of years before MPs at Westminster learned to use parliamentary language without faltering into invective.

The general elections of 2008 introduced an innovation in Pakistan’s parliamentary menu that had seldom been tasted before — the bitter herb of coalition. That has now become standard fare, at tables both at the provincial and at the federal level.

Coalitions are now unavoidable just as once, not so long ago, all-party conferences were popular. These androgynous APCs were in fact a euphemism applied to opposition parties that united temporarily to form an anti-government front, either to confront the government on a particular issue or in an attempt to oust it.

Such all-party congregations were understandable. Nothing can be more disheartening to a political party than not be able to see the horizon of government, especially if they have once been in power. “Opposition,” Roy Hattersley, a British politician whose Labour Party had experienced 18 years (1979-1997) on the wrong side of the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons, “is four or five years’ humiliation in which there is no escape from the indignity of no longer controlling events.”

The latest all-party conference convened by Mian Nawaz Sharif’s government had nobler motives. It sought to share responsibility at a multiparty level for decisions regarding national security and to discuss proposals for talks with the Taliban. It was a new twist to the concept of collective security, a phrase applied originally to geopolitics at an international level. The concept was that of a Roman fasces — the strength of a bundle of rods over one — or the motto E pluribus unum (out of many, one).

In a domestic context, all security is necessarily collective. It affects every part and every party in the country. In theory, therefore, collective decisions by the APC should coalesce disparate interests; in practice, they will be suspect, seen as a ruse to share part of the blame.

The hardest task for the government will be to bring and retain all the parties on the same platform. The challenge for the political parties will be the extent to which they are prepared to subordinate their own interests to a common good.

Linked to the APC on security is the recent metamorphosis of the former Defence Committee of the Cabinet into a Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS). The mandate of the CCNS will be ‘to formulate a national security policy that will become the guiding framework for its subsidiary policies — defence policy, foreign policy, internal security policy, and other policies affecting national security.’

The CCNS will be fed policy options by specialised sub-committees which will be able to draw upon the expertise of specialists and information gathered by intelligence agencies operating within and outside the country. It is the sort of radial power that Vladimir Putin (once czar of the KGB) commands from the Kremlin across the Russian Federation.

The success of the CCNS will depend largely on the attitude of Gen Kayani’s successor as COAS and the cooperation of Pakistan’s hydra-headed intelligence agencies. The CCNS’s failure could attract criticism as derisive as Dr Akbar Ahmed’s recent definition of post 9/11 US governments — “the mediocre leading the confused in pursuit of the dubious”.

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.