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The lost week that was

August 21, 2014


The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

Regardless of the final outcome of the weeklong marches and dharnas, Pakistan seems to have been put back under authoritarian control and this is likely to impose heavy costs on the state and the people in the days to come.

The demands Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri made were political and they struck a sympathetic chord in many a citizen’s heart, but neither of them had the credentials of an anti-authoritarian democrat. They laced their slogans of freedom and revolution with patchy references to history and thus failed to attract the revolutionary core in labour and peasantry.

Also the plight of Balochistan and Sindh did not figure in their concerns and this reduced their challenge to a largely intra-Punjab affair, reinforcing the view that, for the powers that be, Pakistan only means Punjab. At best, they only established themselves as coup-makers without uniforms. They owe their glory to a heavy-footed government that saw safety in making itself invisible and left the public space open to them. The government won credit by following the advice to eschew use of force but this is unlikely to help it alter the script.

The march-dharna confrontation has exposed the state’s vulnerability to upheavals caused by lack of proper governance. The government has failed on two main counts.

The government courted trouble by appearing to be without a political response to the situation

Firstly, it treated political challenges as law-and-order matters. Considerable resources were wasted on plans to prevent the marchers from leaving Lahore. The sudden lifting of roadblocks gave the crowd a sense of victory that encouraged it to push forward. The story was repeated again and again till the final retreat on Tuesday evening.

Besides, the government wrongly relied on the police to manage the crowds although they have repeatedly been found deficient in this area. If nothing else, the mess the Lahore police had made outside Tahirul Qadri’s office two months earlier should have convinced the authorities of the ineffectiveness of this approach. Made to answer for the Model Town excesses the police were too demoralised to take on the challengers in Lahore or Islamabad.

Secondly, the government courted trouble by appearing to be without a political response to the situation created by the two marches. By allowing normal life in Islamabad to be suspended, the government handed the agitators a concession they had not earned. It needed to keep its opponents at bay without allowing the administration to collapse.

Above all, the prime minister failed to realise that parliament alone could underwrite his claim to legitimacy. He should have faced the charge all the time from Parliament House. This way he could have prevented the challengers from monopolising the media outlets.

Mercifully, not everybody was carried away by the marchers’ chant. The Supreme Court rightly resisted being drawn into the unsavoury affair though one wished the practice of taking political matters to courts had ceased.

Most of the political parties that tried their hands at mediation won respect by deciding against taking advantage of the government’s difficulties. But they must accept blame for lack of clarity in their initiatives. The government was frequently advised to offer some sacrifice to save the system, but the Good Samaritans were long on generalised homilies and short on specifics of compromise formulas.

One was reminded of an abduction-for-ransom situation in which the victim family is advised to meet the kidnappers’ demand to some extent in order to ensure the safety of the kidnapped person. These intermediaries would have garnered strong public support if they had spelt out the steps the government could have taken to defuse the situation.

While no one can see a peaceful and fair resolution of the situation as it developed yesterday, the fact that our fledgling democracy’s progress towards maturity has been severely undermined cannot be denied. Democratic politics is an arena for contest between democratic parties that have clearly defined agendas and not for duels between individual claimants to power that we have been witnessing since last Thursday.

Tahirul Qadri can mobilise a crowd but we know little about his party structure. Imran Khan has a party structure of sorts but he apparently treats his core committee the way a cricket captain deals with the ‘boys’ on the field and in the dressing room. By personalising his tussle with Nawaz Sharif he has moved away from impersonal politics that democracy demands.

In the common man’s eyes those accusing Nawaz Sharif of being a badshah are also displaying robes and entertaining ambitions that bear the imperial stamp. Finally, the call for change is not accompanied by properly defined alternatives to what is wrong with the state.

The fears that Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have set a precedent for more extremist forces are not unfounded. If students from Pakistani madressahs could contribute to the Taliban’s victories in Afghanistan they will be easily persuaded to repeat their performance in Pakistan.

Only a few days ago, a religious leader warned the state that the madressah legions were strong enough to seize power. Does the state have the resources to beat off new waves of marches and dharnas, or more serious challenges? The experience of the past few days does not encourage much optimism.

One cannot help feeling sorry for Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri that they have chosen to destroy institutions which, under better promoters, they could have strengthened and stabilised.

The moral of the story is that on the one hand Pakistan must quickly return to democratic ways and build clean and efficient institutions of representative and responsible governance, and on the other, the political parties should sit together to lay down ground rules for their conduct as one another’s friends and adversaries.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2014