DAWN - Opinion; February 22, 2008

Published February 22, 2008

A defining moment

By Rahul Singh

FOR India, this has been the most keenly observed Pakistan election ever. Virtually every major Indian newspaper, magazine and TV channel has sent reporters to cover it, which has never happened before.

The election has made front-page news for the past several days – and will continue to do so for several more days. There has also been extensive coverage in the Indian electronic media as well.

All through Monday and Tuesday, until late into the night, I spent all my time, shuffling between NDTV (who sent its managing editor and star anchor, Barkha Dutt, to Pakistan), Times Now, Headlines Today and CNN/IBN – India’s main English news channels – to see what they had to say on the Pakistan election. Many of my friends and journalist colleagues did the same. Even the one-day cricket match against Sri Lanka took a back seat! How I wish there had been Pakistan TV news channels that Indians could also have watched for what is a defining moment in the history of India and Pakistan.

Why have Indians been so riveted by the Pakistan election? For three main reasons. One, of course, was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Many of us in India may have had reservations about her, since she turned out to be such a let-down, with corruption scandals surrounding her and her doing precious little to bring India and Pakistan closer. When Rajiv Gandhi and she became democratically elected leaders of their respective countries at about the same time, there was immense hope, euphoria almost, that a new era in relations was about to start.

Both were young, glamorous, modern-minded and belonged to the post-Partition generation, without the baggage of the bitterness that had accompanied the division of the subcontinent. Even in the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, they were not major players. They had none of the hang-ups of the past and were coming on centre-stage with a clean slate.

Yet, somehow, the magic did not work. Perhaps the immature and politically inept Rajiv was equally to blame. But Benazir’s assassination, with echoes in the Indian psyche of the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv, truly shook us in India, generating a huge wave of sympathy. So, Indians were focused on Pakistan as never before.

Reason number two: Pakistan back on the democratic track. Except for the perennially rabid anti-Pakistan elements in India, most sensible Indians, even those in the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), want a stable, peaceful and democratic Pakistan. Democracies rarely go to war with each other. The two times India and Pakistan have fought, in 1965 and 1971 (the full story of the Kargil war is yet to be told) military dictators were in power in Pakistan.

President Musharraf was not a brutal dictator by any standards, yet a dictator nevertheless, who overthrew a democratically elected government. And most democrats don’t like dictators, however benevolent and well-meaning they might be. President Musharraf’s likely removal from effective power is again reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ rule and her fall (though she returned to power later), 30 years ago.

She, too, overthrew democracy because she claimed it had been derailed and that the country could be better governed through authoritarian rule. But she called an election and when the electorate voted against her, she gracefully stepped down.

Musharraf has done much the same. To his credit, it must be said, there seems to have been little evidence of rigging in this election – perhaps the presence of a large number of foreign observers was a deterrent – and the widespread violence that was feared did not fortunately take place. Dictators rarely step down on their own. They usually meet a violent death or are removed after they lead their country into a disastrous war. Musharraf has proved to be an exception, for which Pakistan can be thankful. If he now quietly removes himself from the political scene, history may be kinder to him. In other words, there are parallels between Indira Gandhi and Musharraf.

The third reason why we in India have been so interested in the election is something on which the two countries must build on in the years to come. I am referring to people-to-people contact. Till about five or six years ago, few Pakistani visitors came to India and vice versa. There was a virtual iron curtain between the two countries.

Once, while transiting Karachi in the 1970s, I had several hours to kill between flights and hoped to see something of the city. No such luck. I was taken from the airport to a hotel and ordered not to leave my windowless room! I also recall in the early 1980s, going to the Wagah border, separating the two countries in Punjab.

Many young Pakistanis, including some girls, had come there mainly to gawk at the Sikh soldiers, with their beards and turbans, taking part in the traditional ceremony at sunset when the Indian and Pakistani flags are lowered. “They have come to have their first look at Sardarjis,” explained an Indian officer, with a smile.

However, there has now been a sea-change, with regular bus and train services and more flights between the two countries. Just the other day, it was announced that the number of flights from India to Pakistan would be doubled, with a new direct flight from Delhi to Islamabad. The one day cricket matches in Pakistan four years ago, gave a further boost to this healthy interaction between our two nations, with thousands of Indians going to Pakistan. I was at the Lahore match and was pleasantly surprised – and touched – at how the Pakistani spectators cheered the Indian cricketers. I was seeing a new generation of relatively young Pakistanis, keen to put the past behind them and stretch out their hands in friendship.

We need even more Pakistanis visiting India and more Indians going to Pakistan. That is the way forward. The procedures for getting visas – and restrictions on those visas – on both sides, are still much too cumbersome. They need to be simplified. Why not visas on arrival? Many countries have this system. Why not India and Pakistan, and Bangladesh, for that matter? And why this stupid business of having to report to police stations and not being allowed to move beyond the cities specified on the visa? Prejudice feeds on ignorance, and the best way of removing ignorance, is for people to meet and talk, perhaps argue. The new democratic leaders of Pakistan and those of India have an opportunity to chart a new course in Indo-Pak ties. They should not miss it.

The writer is a former Editor of the ‘Reader’s Digest’, ‘Indian Express’ and ‘Khaleej Times’.


Perceptions of democracy

By Ayesha Siddiqa

THE other day I was talking to a prominent economist from Pakistan who was extremely uncomfortable about the future of democracy in the country despite the excitement amongst the common people at the defeat inflicted on the King and his party. Her view was that now we are back to square one.

It is the same politicians who stole millions of the tax payer’s money and would probably do the same if they were given a chance again. The economist’s conclusion was that given a choice she would prefer a military dictator over a corrupt politician.

This perception is not odd. There are a number of Pakistanis who feel that way. They believe that the current set of politicians do not represent the people or middle class values. In fact, the middle class is seen as possessing the magic to transit the country to democracy while ensuring steady economic progress as well.

Let’s not get too upset with this view because it represents one of the many views on political and socio-economic development in a country. Incidentally, this approach, which views democracy as being necessarily correlated with better financial management or lack of corruption is what was passed on by the prominent international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, etc.

This view does not take into account the decision-making practices in other countries such as the US and West European states where better record of democracy has not necessarily restricted corruption. Although the argument here should not be deemed as defending corruption of politicians, the point which is being made here is that there is no direct co-relation between the two concepts. Accountability and transparency, of course, are ideals which are expected to be prominent in a democratic setup. But greater democracy does not necessarily ensure cleaner politics.

As far as primacy of middle class values is concerned, again, there is no direct co-relation between ascendancy of this class in a society and the strengthening of democracy. In fact, the middle class in a country can have as much of authoritarian tendencies as the ruling elite. The middle class tends to be authoritarian because it is the class that is most likely to replace the ruling elite.

In Pakistan’s case, for example, where the economic redistributive process depends on association with the state and state bureaucracy, even the middle class can support authoritarian politics. The role of a dominant state bureaucracy helps in cutting across the process of consensus building which is the hallmark of democratic decision-making.

Authoritarianism is linked with the process of globalisation and international capital that creates opportunities for a select few in the name of better re-distribution of resources. The middle class begins to support the case for better distribution or for creation of institutional mechanisms, which are a vital part of democracy, mainly due to its own interests such as creating greater space for themselves vis-à-vis the ruling elite.

So, the Pakistani economist mentioned above was flabbergasted by the fact that hundreds and thousands of Pakistanis voted for politicians she was not enamoured with. A common argument is that the majority of Pakistanis, especially those from the rural areas, are too illiterate and poor to make a better judgment.

But why are common Pakistanis so dumb? Why can’t they get rid of feudal land owners? A lot of the people who make this argument have rarely gone to the rural areas or their visits are restricted to implement NGO projects. What they do not notice is that the common man does exert his judgment while making a choice. It is not necessarily the death of a leader or some other tragedy which makes them decide. Of course, symbols of sacrifice are important but then what we witnessed during these elections was that those who generally had a reputation of being brash and oppressive feudals did not manage to get votes or ride the tide of PPP’s popularity.

Furthermore, the politicians and the people in the rural area are tied together in an intense process of negotiation which manifests itself in the form of the winning margin of a candidate. The people punish those who do not perform by not voting for such people. The shift in attitude of a constituency is apparent from the wining margin of a candidate. So, even if a bad politician would win, he would get lesser votes which is an indicator of how people feel. In an electoral process this means that in a future competition the candidate would have to deliver more. Many a prominent people from all parties were wiped out because they failed to perform. Many won by smaller margins.

Naturally, the question that comes to mind is that why can’t the people just dump the old politicians and bring in working class people? The answer is that selecting a person who has a good network with the people as well as the state or authority is necessary to get access to resources. For instance, the choice would be for a person who could help with the state machinery in times of need.

While we all emphasise the need for devolution of democracy there is very little thought given to making the state bureaucracy responsive to the common man. The police constable, the revenue officer and other state representatives, or the legal system primarily respond to the elite. To give another example, despite several judgments by the superior courts which ban the police from keeping a female in a police lock-up overnight, the decision is rarely implemented. Surely, this is not to condone the powerful rural elite that manipulate state machinery, the fact is that the system is not geared towards a cold-blooded implementation of laws.

The results of the 2008 elections or the fact that these were relatively free and fair does not necessarily mean that it would not be an uphill task for the politicians or that the traditional pattern of politics has become redundant. In fact, there are issues which might strengthen the system of patronage yet again.

One of the crucial issues that will confront the next government is price adjustment. The Shaukat Aziz-Pervez Musharraf regime left at a time when they needed to do price adjustments to meet the international prices, especially in oil and electricity. Even the interim government failed to do so which means that the burden of price adjustment will fall on the incoming regime. They will have two options: (a) keep the prices stable and low by offering subsidies which will invoke the wrath of the international finance institutions (IFIs) or (b) increase the cost of electricity and oil by another 20-30 per cent. This would naturally push up commodity prices.

Depending on how generous is the international community in dealing with a new political dispensation, there could be a problem of scarce resources. Under the circumstances, there is a possibility of politicians reverting to the old methodology of providing indirect subsidies to their support base which will again raise the issue of corruption.

An option to check financial mismanagement is to strengthen the judiciary. The restoration of judges, hence, is a necessary move. This is not about individuals but about people who symbolise better accessibility to justice. More important, continuation of electoral democracy is a bare minimum requirement for strengthening the political system.

The writer is an independent analyst and the author of the book ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’.


An ‘inconvenient’ truth

By Beena Sarwar

“THE election results in Pakistan were good news, about the best that could have emerged, but what kind of democracy is it that puts the fate of the country in the hands of a Nawaz Sharif and an Asif Zardari? My lord! How weird! Help me understand...,” beseeched an American journalist, who has lived and worked in Pakistan, in a recent email to some journalist friends.

My spontaneous response: “It’s surely not worse than a democracy which puts the fate of America — and the world — in the hands of a George W. Bush...TWICE!!”

I didn’t mean to be rude or flippant. I don’t like George W. Bush (because of his foreign policy) any more than my friend likes Mr Zardari or Mr Sharif, although he thinks that the overall election results were about the best that there could have been. However, we agree that democracy is an ongoing process and that it is the right of the people to bring in whom they choose.

Several lobbies in Pakistan mirror my American friend’s reaction and are suspicious of both Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari because of their past reputations and records. Both leaders, with the mature and responsible positions they are taking, have so far justified the confidence reposed in them by the electorate.

Democracy can be inconvenient when you don’t like the leadership it throws up. It can be deeply damaging when it brings in leadership whose stint in power leads to negative, far-reaching and long term consequences—like President Bush, who is responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of human lives – American, Iraqi and Afghan. And, by extension, Pakistani, when the Pakistan army under US pressure attacks its own people in a bid to win the ‘war on terror’. (The Pakistan government can take sole credit for the military action in Balochistan).

Certainly governments need to deal firmly with violence enacted by militants of any hue. However, history teaches us that a heavy-handed military-only approach leads to more violence, hatred, and militancy.

It’s not just Mr Bush. The democratically elected rightwing BJP government in India backed by religious militants caused enormous damage to India’s secular polity. Human rights groups hold the BJP responsible for the Gujarat massacre that was made possible by the party’s patronage to right-wing extremists. This, despite the relatively soft face it presented through prime minister A.B. Vajpayee, the poet-politician who had the grace to visit the Minar-i-Pakistan when he came to Lahore in February 1999 at the invitation of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Sharif too was an elected leader despite the flawed electoral process and irregularities that brought him to power. He acted in the most undemocratic way when in power, muzzling the media and trying to pass ‘religious’ laws that would give him absolute power.

The Pakistani people were not given the satisfaction of showing him the door; in October 1999, the military snatched that prerogative as it has done so many times before.

In America, Mr Bush was able to play upon the fears and nationalist reactions in a post 9/11 world to get voted in for a second term. In India, the people exercised their right to boot out the right-wing forces that they had elected in the previous polls.

When the Palestinians made the ‘mistake’ of voting for Hamas in January 2006, the US and Israel immediately began “discussing ways to destabilise the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again” reported The New York Times (Feb 14, 2006). The intention, according to the report, was “to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement”.

Backed by Western powers, the Algerian army cracked down on the winning Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and postponed subsequent elections after the FIS bagged over half the votes cast in municipal elections of June 1990 and was leading in the first stage of national legislative elections of December 1991. The result in both cases was increasing militancy in the area, instead of less.

In a previous era, of course, such crackdowns were geared not against ‘Islamic militancy’ but against anything that smacked of communism, socialism or anything ‘left-wing’.

The people of Iran, and indeed the world, well remember the role of the Western powers after the Iranians elected the socialist leaning Mossadeq as prime minister who promptly nationalised the nation’s oil resources.

The list is long. At this point in time, we in Pakistan are concerned with the transition to democracy that genuinely reflects the will of the people.

The buzz from above reflects other priorities. The people, by rejecting the Musharraf-backed parties, have clearly indicated that they do not want him in power. But Western powers dismiss this verdict because they find it convenient to deal with him. They fear that his removal would lead to ‘instability’. And so they will continue to prop him up.

Secondly, there is talk of the general dislike in Washington’s corridors of power for Nawaz Sharif: Mr Bush, even as his second term ends (plenty of time to do more damage yet), is not happy at the idea of an alliance of the PPP and the PML-N. We hear of pressure being exerted on the PPP to ally not with Nawaz Sharif but with the disgraced and discredited PML-Q.

It would be unrealistic to expect all these pressures to be magically lifted just because the people of Pakistan have willed it so. The electorate, which in no uncertain terms rejected the ‘religious’ and the Musharraf-backed parties at the polls, can only hope that their support is enough for Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari to stay strong and hold the interests of the people above all else.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.


I cast my vote

By Zahra Chughtai

KARACHI has not been a happy place these last few months. But despite the grim run up to the elections (a cautionary tale warning women in particular against potential suicide bombers getting into their cars was doing the rounds, not to mention bomb scares at several prominent schools) polling day dawned bright, clear and oddly peaceful. Although public buses were not plying on the roads, the atmosphere was calm; in fact there was a latent excitement in the air.

Eager to be part of the electoral process, and shrugging aside cynicism, my husband and I set out to cast our votes. This was easier said than done, however, since we had no idea which polling station we were registered at. We decided to try a nearby polling station from where we would at least be able to trace out the relevant information. Outside that polling station, two booths had been set up by the PPP and the PML-N.

My husband made his way to one while I tried the other. As expected, I was told that my name was not on their list. So where did one go from here? How does a voter determine his or her polling station, serial number etc? This seemed to be an insurmountable task with all the party workers smiling helplessly. However, since I had the advantage of being ‘ladies’, I was helped by the extremely obliging PML-N polling agent. He called up his head office where they have access to the central data base carrying the electoral data and traced out the elusive information.

With many thanks, it was then on to the next station. But even greater chaos prevailed here. Even though I was armed with my voter number etc, the lady at the party booth outside the station refused to even check my name on her list. “We have no list from the area where you live,” she insisted. Refusing to take no for an answer, I moved to the booth next door where people were grabbing lists and going through them. Not surprisingly, some were ripped apart and had pages missing.

“Let’s assume I want to vote for your party,” I asked one zealous party worker in irritation. “Tell me how do I do it.” More sheepish smiles and shrugs. My husband and I kept diving back into the melee and ploughing through the lists until we finally did find our names on the list, as I pointed out with some ire to the lady who had earlier turned me away.

So now was I ready to cast my vote? One would think so, and some minor confusion about finding the correct polling room later, I finally found myself in the voting queue. However, my elderly neighbour who was a few places behind me was turned away from the voting table since she did not have the requisite voting number and had no idea how to access it. Another friend who had started out at one in the afternoon finally managed to cast her ballot past four pm. It made one wonder whether the competing political parties were really interested in our votes?

Meanwhile, as we patiently stood in line, foreign election observers with benevolent smiles but ferocious looking guards strolled through the polling station. An interesting exchange was overheard between one observer and an elderly gentleman waiting to cast his vote. Having determined that the observer was American, the gentleman asked, “How come you don’t invite us to monitor your elections. If memory serves, the last polls in your country were pretty controversial too?” As sniggers went around the room, another young voice piped up, “What do you care what happens in our country anyway?” The observer made some diplomatic responses and, then attempting a sort of gracious joviality announced “Congratulations on a fair election” and exited the room.

In other parts of the city, however, one heard first hand accounts of multiple votes being cast in favour of the city’s most popular party. In fact, there was no hidden balloting in these stations and papers were routinely being stamped in front of the polling officers, more than once by many voters. People even exercised the right to vote of deceased relatives whose names were still on the lists.

Nevertheless, as the results poured in we revisited some of the election euphoria of earlier years and remained glued to our television screens to lap up news and reviews. Some dormant optimism now tentatively rears its head and I for one am determined, in the words of Monty Python, to “look on the bright side of life”.


Hidden words

The line between freedom of information and censorship is a narrow one. This week the information tribunal in Britain ordered the publication of an early draft of what would become the dodgy dossier making the case for war. That was openness.

But one word was suppressed –– the word “Israel”. That, on the arguments advanced for its suppression, was craven and in any other context would resemble an act of censorship. We can only guess as to the reasons why the tribunal decided the word should be suppressed. It deliberated in secret and delivered a confidential judgment in respect of the excision.

The word “Israel” was written in the margins of the draft document by an unknown –– but presumably senior –– hand. It referred to a sentence which said of Saddam’s Iraq: “No other country has flouted the UN’s authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.” The implied meaning of the margin note was well articulated by a senior Foreign Office official, Neil Wigan, in trying to argue for its suppression –– that “the person who wrote it believes that Israel has flouted the UN authority similar to that of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein”.

It may well be embarrassing to have it revealed to the world that well-placed figures in Whitehall held such views in 2002, but it is a large step from that to ordering such a serious an act of concealment. The Foreign Office succeeded by exploiting one of the numerous loopholes that riddle the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Wigan argued in a statement that Israel would take a dim view of the Foreign Office; that the affair would attract a huge amount of embarrassing press coverage; and that bilateral relations between the UK and Israel would suffer. The statement paints a pained picture of the way in which Israel regularly kicks up a fuss with Britain over “far more minor matters”.

The enfeebled FOI legislation does, indeed, allow for an exemption for material that could prejudice relations between the UK and other states. But it is dismaying that material which is merely embarrassing can so easily trigger the blue pencil.

And it is doubly dismaying that the process by which such decisions are reached are secret.

––The Guardian, London

© DAWN Media Group , 2008



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