Uproar over the NRO

By Kaiser Bengali

BENAZIR Bhutto’s return has evoked strong reactions. A section of society has raised a moral uproar over the National Reconciliation Ordinance that was promulgated before her arrival, claiming that she has been allowed to ‘escape justice for her corrupt actions’. However, the millions of people who accorded her a tumultuous welcome have shown that the two-decade long attempt to denigrate her has completely failed to impress them.

The dramatically sharp divide between the two responses raise two important questions: who are the elements that have elevated the campaign against Benazir Bhutto and the PPP to the level of a vitriolic moral crusade and what are their motivations for doing so? The answer perhaps lies in the sharp divide in terms of class interests.

It appears that there is a broad conservative coalition that has been crafted by the military establishment. At one end of the spectrum of this coalition is the religious aristocracy that also enables the militant brigades to supplement the covert operations of the intelligence agencies. This combination represents the ‘muscle’ part of the coalition.

The other end of the spectrum comprises two elements. One is the landed and business elite that keeps the wheels of the economy running and generates the revenue to maintain the state edifice. They represent the ‘money’ part of the coalition. The other is the westernised English-educated professional class that provides the ‘intellectual’ veneer.

This coalition of seemingly strange ‘bedfellows’ constitutes the Pakistani equivalent of the neoconservatives, or neocons, in the US. The people, at large, subsist on the periphery and constitute the labour units that produce the surpluses for the neocon ashraafia.

The neocon ashraafia has aggressively endeavoured to protect its privileged economic, social and political position. To that end, it has resisted the development of popular politics and exploited every opportunity to berate political parties, politicians and politics. It is intrinsically hostile to democracy — except for paying perfunctory lip service to cater to a western or westernised audience — and has tended to welcome military takeovers.

The rationale for their support to non-democratic regimes and opposition to democratic politics is not difficult to fathom. The dominance of non-democratic regimes has enabled the ashraafia to amass property and other forms of wealth largely through dubious means, including questionable official policies designed to benefit it. It is able to spend on one evening of family dining out what millions of families each earn in a whole month.

The intense PPP bashing can be seen in this context. The PPP is the first mass party that has raised the banner of egalitarianism. This is anathema to the neocon ashraafia. Its pathological distaste for the PPP — and the Bhuttos — is rooted in its fear of even a whiff of social equality and it can clearly be seen to be merely using the NRO affair as yet another opportunity to whiplash Benazir Bhutto and the PPP and, in the process, demonise democratic politics. The ‘dispensation of justice’ argument makes for a convenient facade.

The neocon double standards are obvious. The moral indignation regarding the NRO stands in sharp contrast to the fact that it has consistently failed to take moral offence whenever reports surfaced of corruption of the military establishment and its surrogates. Its moral sense also failed to awaken when scores of generals and politicians allied to General Ziaul Haq’s military regime were provided indemnity under the infamous Eighth Amendment for bank loan defaults and write-offs. Needless to say, most of them are now part of the same neocon ashraafia. Ironically, many champions of democracy appear to have been inadvertently shepherded on to the neocon bandwagon.

From a conceptual perspective, the corruption issue vis-à-vis Benazir Bhutto can be seen from the context of two different assumptions. One, it is assumed that Benazir Bhutto is corrupt. Thereby, the moral fury at her ‘unholy deal’ with General Musharraf and her ‘escape from justice’ can be considered valid.

The other is that there is the universally accepted principle of ‘innocence until proven guilty’. And the fact is that Benazir Bhutto or Asif Zardari have not been convicted in a single case among the many that have been filed against them in Pakistan and abroad.

In this context, the corruption issue is rendered questionable from the perspective of the basic principles of law, and any sense of moral ire can be seen to be based on heresy and insinuations. Once the latter premise of ‘innocence until proven guilty’ is accepted, the entire web of corruption charges surrounding Benazir Bhutto can be seen in the light of realpolitik.

The locational distribution of corruption cases is significant. Prior to her departure from Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto had been constrained to spend most of her time commuting between different cities in the country to appear in one court after another. There was one week when Benazir Bhutto had to attend a court hearing in Lahore, fly the next day to Karachi for a court hearing and return to Lahore the day after for another court hearing.

The preoccupation with her cases and the constant travelling that it involved seriously dented the time and attention she could give to party affairs.

That, perhaps, was the precise intention. General Ziaul Haq used every vicious tool in his bag to break the PPP and failed. General Musharraf decided to change tactics and attempt to paralyse the party by tightening the web around Benazir Bhutto, tying her up in legal knots and simply making it impossible for her to run the party.

Clearly, the neocon objective has not been to ensure justice, but to exploit the banner of justice to politically eliminate challenges to their power and privilege that arises from any expression of popular democratic politics. And the PPP’s populist politics is seen to present the biggest threat in this respect.

In the context of the principles of law, the web of corruption charges woven around the PPP can no longer command legitimacy or credibility. After all, no court case can be dragged on indefinitely without any conviction. Incongruity has been added to the farce of ‘dispensing justice’ by the fact that those PPP leaders who agreed to play by the military establishment’s rules had their case hearings pending indefinitely.

Absurdity has been added by the fact that among those filing applications for dismissal of corruption cases against them under the NRO is none other than Gen Musharraf’s minister of interior! His predecessor was also facing corruption charges and his name had to be temporarily removed from the Exit Control List to enable him to attend an official engagement abroad!

The mala fide intentions of the corruption cases against PPP leaders stand out rather clearly. Given the glaring lack of moral legitimacy of the judicial process with respect to the corruption cases, Benazir Bhutto cannot be said to have escaped justice, but can be said to have escaped the politically constricting web that was drawn around her. She has managed to return to the political arena to revive the challenge to the forces that wish to keep the people out of the corridors of power. The vicious and bloody response to her return can be seen in this context.

A new economic course

By Shahid Javed Burki

THE political structure that is being built at this time in Pakistan, brick by reluctant brick, may set the stage for the reformulation of economic policy. This is needed since, the pronouncements from Islamabad notwithstanding, the economy is not delivering to the citizens what they need most: jobs that pay well, access to the services only the government can provide and hope for the next generations.

While the economy has expanded rapidly in the last five years, growing at a rate of seven per cent a year, it has delivered very little to the citizenry. This situation cannot persist for very long.

I was intrigued by what President Pervez Musharraf said in a TV interview a few days ago. The interview was advertised as the first to be given by him after his election for another term as president. He said that he always speaks with candour, and he did adopt that approach on most subjects on which questions were asked.

He said that in evaluating the government’s progress in terms of the seven objectives he had listed in October 1999, he was prepared to say that he had totally succeeded in none and totally failed in none. In some the degree of success was greater than in others. He identified the management of the economy as the area in which his government had done the best. A respectable level of growth in GDP had been achieved and was likely to be maintained in the future. The incidence of poverty had declined from 34 to 24 per cent of the total.

While recognising that no government could claim economic success when one out of every four of its citizens was living in absolute poverty, a 10 percentage point decline in incidence is an impressive performance. This trend he said would continue during his next tenure, there would be even greater progress, and poverty would become an insignificant part of life in the country. When the new government took office, it was his hope that it would work for the welfare of all people.

There are a number of truths in these statements: the economy has expanded impressively in recent years; the incidence of poverty has declined under his watch; the most important objective of any government, no matter what its ideological bias, was to work for the common good of the people; and some of the trends set in place by has administration would continue.

However, what the general did not mention was that there was intense debate in the country about the government’s data on poverty; whether the rapid economic expansion could have done better for the poor; whether the high rates of growth achieved in the last five years could be sustained in the foreseeable future without a major change in the direction of public policy; whether his government was able to profit from the remarkable changes that had occurred in the structure of the global economy.

Most notable in absence from the general’s evaluation of the economy was the rapidly widening income gap. Four income gaps have been allowed to increase by his economic managers: the gap in the incomes of the rich and the well-to-do on the one side and the poor and the not-so-poor on the other; the gap in the incomes of the people separated by geography within the peripheries of the country’s major cities; the gap between rural and urban incomes; and the gap between the country’s richer and poorer provinces.

Such gaps can only develop and endure when the political system does not allow a voice to the people who are on the wrong side of the income divide.

The main reason why the evolving political structure may be better in delivering to the people what they desperately need is that it will be accountable to them. The economic model followed during the Musharraf period was accountable only to him; he had to be convinced that the government was moving in the right direction.

Given all else he was doing, it could not be expected of him to get involved in the minutiae of the state’s economic policies. And even if he could, he would not be able to tell whether all that was being done was for the good of the people.

His autobiography and his public statements suggest that he fully purchased what his economic managers sold him in terms of the impact their policies were producing for the populace. He did not have access to the institutions that would have given a different story.

He was not told that the benefit from economic expansion was flowing into a few pockets and into a few regions. That a deep resentment was building up in the hearts and minds of those who were being left way behind by the progress they could see was being made. That the promise of continued economic expansion was based on procuring funds from abroad that would create enormous burdens for the economy in the near future.

Those who manage the economy must be able to answer not just on special occasions but at all the times questions such as the following: is the government spending for the people’s welfare (for instance, when senior leaders take planeloads of people on foreign trips, what public good is it serving and what is precisely the cost and benefit of that expenditure)?

Is the policy being adopted the most appropriate for improving the general welfare of the people compared to all the other that would achieve the objective being considered (should Islamabad spend so much on clearing the traffic bottlenecks in the city when there is so much physical infrastructure to be built in so many other parts of the country)?

What could be done to lessen the burden carried by the poor (should there be investments made in public works programmes)? In what way could the youth of the country be saved from being corrupted by the extremist groups? How could the country position itself to benefit from the changing structure of the global economy? How could the country save from the present incomes for the future rather than spend today in the hope that the future generations would meet the debt being incurred?

Questions such as these get asked when policymakers are answerable to the people — all of them, no matter to which economic class they belong, no matter in which part of the country they live, no matter to which ideology and religion they subscribe. Such accountability has always been absent from the way successive generations of leaders have governed in Pakistan.

Perhaps a series of unexpected developments has cleared the way for the emergence of a new political order that would be more responsive to the people in the way it goes about making economic policies.

We can only hope that this process of giving the country a new set of institutions will not get derailed by those who remain protective of their narrow and personal interests rather than being mindful of the society’s larger interest.

The original sin of politics

By Afiya Shehrbano

SOME political scientists consider violence to be the ‘original sin’ of politics. Political leadership ritualises death as sacrifice — for a cause and higher purpose. Since it becomes a measure of extreme devotion, in a fantastical way, political violence becomes legitimised.

For the revolutionary, political violence is the precondition to liberation, the solution. This distinguishes it from other forms of general violent behaviour, which is considered apolitical and hence, ‘random’. The ‘privileging’ or romanticising of political violence makes it harder to resolve.

The various expressions of violence can range from verbal to physical, domestic and public and even of collective memories of violence to immediate experience or routine, institutionalised violence. These are not independent phenomena. Hegemonic violence is possible because its impact on the individual or community is ignored for the ‘larger’ concern, such as ‘national security’ or saving the international community from the ‘scourge of terrorism’. Similarly, the individual political actor may be sacrificed to save the leader and hence, ‘democracy’.

Yet democracy is supposed to be a commitment to improve the lives of all people equally, a tool of empowerment, not loss. Does death signify a purer form of political sacrifice and is leadership worth more than its following?

Consider the claim of Benazir Bhutto prior to her return to Pakistan, that no ‘Muslim’ would attack a ‘Muslim sister’. On one level, this was hollow political jingoism. On another, it was a betraying testimony against all women who have been attacked; Muslim or not, political or not. Have we so quickly forgotten Punjab minister Zille Huma, a victim of political murder earlier this year?

The wishful thinking that these are freak ‘fanatic’ attacks only distracts from the overwhelming reality of secular male violence and the threat of women in any public office or space. Neither should Arbab Rahim’s views describing women’s political leadership as ‘vicious’ be dismissed as ‘feudal’ or political rambling. Anyone who has studied or spoken to women in any public service will hear about overwhelming experiences of verbal and sexual harassment and violence, perpetrated by the most ‘liberal’ and ‘enlightened’ men.

Verbal violence is a form of humiliation that can have the same shattering impact as that of a physical assault. Fanon equates the experience of racial slur as the amputation of a limb, whereby verbal violence objectifies humanity and the experience is as traumatic.

Of course this is not to trivialise physical loss, merely to suggest that symbolic, verbal and domestic violence must be seen as part of the same continuum and process of dehumanisation as state or political violence. So the language we use to describe political actions and motives needs to be examined and rethought.

Political leaders must not appropriate mileage out of political violence. Neither should they be allowed to become ‘victims’ on the basis of ethnicity, gender and religion, when they are privileged leaders who can afford protection, exile and security of lifestyle.

At the same time they must be prepared to face a new language of a new media. Along with it comes a younger generation, which does not necessarily have any memory and, perhaps, no reverence for exiled ‘democratic’ leadership. There is no romance with democracy and politics for them. They may very well challenge redundant slogans and the sibling political bickering that evades real issues.

However, if journalists themselves do not respect the language of politics and focus on sensational quotes and provocations, we need to hold them responsible for contributing to verbal aggression too. The use of derogatory language and sexual innuendo that objectifies women, particularly those who are visible and in public office, must not be tolerated amongst men but also women.

At the same time, rather than attacking the age or social behaviour of critics of Benazir Bhutto, as was done in an English language newspaper editorial last week, it may be more conducive to expose the political flaws within the criticism itself and stop at that.

After all, the boundaries of political behaviour and mature democratic debate must be drawn in a mutually respectful way. We could possibly begin by avoiding any imposition of privilege over one another — from words, to action. It may not prevent the continued sinful violence in our politics but it could just lend to redefining civilised political conduct as a beginning.


“We have a one-point agenda and that is the enforcement of Sharia in Swat and the rest of the Malakand region in accordance with the assurance given to us by the government.”
—Deputy of militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah telling journalists.

“The war against terrorism is a war of interests. When a country cuts your independence, attacks and occupies your country, then it is natural to stand up against the usurper.”
—JUI chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman in reply to a question.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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