THE attacks on the government are increasing day by day and the greatest cause of dismay in the speedily shrinking democratic lobby is the combatants’ lack of appreciation of the threat to the democratic polity.

Until recently, all attention was concentrated on the well-orchestrated manoeuvres against a media house and noisy agitation for electoral reforms. Nobody was talking of a possible challenge to the government. Now more and more people are referring to such a threat.

The leader of the PML-Q says the government’s days are numbered but his views about his mother party need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Then the PPP indicated a slight shift in its policy of standing by the Nawaz Sharif government when one of its leaders remarked that his party was committed to defending the system and not necessarily the existing government.

The most significant disclosure about the siege of the government came from a federal minister, Abdul Qadir Baloch, who not only confirmed the existence of a threat to his government but also identified Musharraf loyalists as the culprits.

The speed with which the Pakistani people forget, or are persuaded to forget, the bitter lessons of history is mind-boggling indeed.

For decades, politicians, students of politics and conscious citizens have been affirming the need for allowing elected governments to complete their term. Frequent disposal of representative governments has often been recognised as the greatest hindrance to the growth of democratic norms. Yet, barely a year after celebrating a democratic transition of authority from one elected government to another we see a revival of the mutual demolition game.

Another lesson the political parties had learnt related to their Himalayan blunder of treating one another as their worst enemies and in seeking the aid of non-political elements for doing in their rivals. The Charter of Democracy signed by the heads of the PPP and PML-N, and in the presence of many other leaders, was rightly hailed as proof of our political parties’ coming of age. Today, the pledge that no political party will be a tool in the hands of extra-democratic forces is all but forgotten.

This is not to deny the opposition’s right to critically scrutinise the work of any government and call for reference to the electorate if its continuance in power poses a threat to national interests. The opposition does not have the exclusive right to determine whether such a state has been reached. That right belongs to the people.

The main line of attack on the government at the moment is the alleged rigging of elections in certain constituencies last year. While there is considerable public support for electoral reform, the demand for regime change lacks justification because the present government was not in power in May 2013 and no proof of the state establishment’s involvement in poll irregularities has been forthcoming.

Besides, one can already see that the field is no longer occupied by democratic forces divided on issues of legitimacy or public interest. Nobody should be unaware of the history of anti-democratic elements’ efforts to demonise political parties by playing up incidents of electoral fraud. The people of Pakistan know better than any other contemporary society how agitation against electoral malpractices can be designed so as to rock the democratic system itself.

The Geo affair, the campaign against civil society and pressure on the judiciary have shown what kind of forces are spoiling to exploit the anti-government agitation. The consequences of ignoring Raza Rabbani’s warning that the country is drifting towards a 1977-like situation could be catastrophic. Those out to destroy the system are holding rallies that are looking like rehearsals for capturing the state through mob power.

What makes the situation extraordinarily grim is the realisation shared by a fairly large section of public opinion that the state has been weakened to an extent that it may not offer another chance for a movement for the restoration of democracy. Any disruption of the existing system is bound to weaken the foundations of the state and spell the end of the federation.

But who will save the system? This task cannot be accomplished by civil society alone, regardless of its capacity to read the situation correctly and the soundness of its advice. Nor are the state institutions strong enough to stem the tide of anarchy. Everything depends on the capacity of the politicians in authority to mobilise the people in support of the democratic system.

Unfortunately, the government is doing little to consolidate the democratic tradition. Indeed the pattern of personal rule the government is pursuing and its disinclination to take parliament into confidence on key issues — be it the military operation in the tribal areas or the trip to Delhi — are doing more harm to the system than the rant of militant adventurers. A government that cannot stop the vulgarisation of the country’s name on automobile number plates is unlikely to have the clarity of vision and the will to defend democracy. As noted by a perspicacious observer the people do not like their elected representatives to behave like kings.

Tailpiece: An Indian friend known for learning and refined sensibility has recalled W.B. Yeats (Second Coming) to describe the situation in India. The lines are equally apt for Pakistan:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned/ The best lack all conviction and the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2014

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