KARACHI: We have yet to define whether we want to be a democratic welfare state or a security state. The struggle for Pakistan since its inception has always been between the elite and the poor. Television channels are defining the national narrative. These were thoughts expressed at the Aga Khan University’s Sixth Sense Forum Lecture Series on Tuesday at a panel discussion on “Pakistan’s rising political temperature” which was followed by a spirited debate on the efficacy and pitfalls of democracy and its processes.
The discussion featured columnist and journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, economic adviser to the Balochistan government Kaiser Bengali and TV anchorperson and columnist Ayesha Tammy Haq.
Mr Salahuddin, who has grappled with the issues of identity crisis facing Pakistan in several of his columns, brought forth the same theme when he was queried about civil-military relations. “In answering this question we have to first answer a fundamental question relating to the identity of Pakistan. Should we be a democratic welfare state or a security state?.” He felt that only the military could answer this question as due to its constant interference, the country’s future was at stake. “It has to sit down with the civilian government and [work out its role] as there is no other option.”
Mr Bengali had a different take on the subject. In his opinion the identity crisis of Pakistan needed to be viewed from the elite versus the poor perspective. “The struggle for Pakistan since its inception has been between the elite and the poor. The Pakistani elite suffer from greed like any other such group in the world. It takes the cover of the establishment to maintain its power and distribute patronage.”
According to him, the half a dozen military takeovers, including civilian, that Pakistan has been subjected to, these were in reality a power struggle between the elite and the poor. To substantiate his statement he cited the example of the Zia years. “During Zia’s martial law businessmen and moneyed professionals were supporting Zia. He had mass support among the elite.”
Ayesha Tammy Haq expressed her thoughts on the subject in present-day Pakistan under the framework of the electronic media. Belonging to the fraternity, she was, nevertheless, scathing in her criticism of her fellow anchorpersons who never challenged blanket statements uttered by their guests on various talk shows. “The guests are very aggressive when they come on the talk shows intimidating TV hosts and who consequently don’t challenge the veracity of their statements. Also, when same five things are constantly repeated on five channels the general public considers it to be the gospel truth. It is the big media groups that act as the elite controlling the TV channels and consequently the national narrative.”
Taking the cue, Mr Bengali told the attendees of a recent talk show in which a well-known Urdu newspaper columnist claimed that the crime rate of Tokyo city had been brought down with the help of its mafia. “It is completely false. There is no truth whatsoever.” According to Mr Salahuddin talk shows are biased and have become monotonous. “Talk shows are doing nothing to increase political awareness.” Mr Bengali further added that the electronic media wasn’t focusing on Gilgit Baltistan and Balochistan or on issues like health and education. To which Ms Haq said that this was so because people would start questioning those at the helm and their ability to run the country. “It is easier to divert people’s attention to the likes of covering dharnas and jalsas.”
A participant blamed democracy and politicians for raising the political temperature in the country to which all the three panellists vociferously defended the much maligned system of governance. “Democracy has worked in some nations and it hasn’t worked in other countries. Similarly, dictatorship has delivered in some nations and in other countries it has wreaked much damage. The real debate is not between democracy and dictatorship. In fact, it is about which social class is in the driving seat. Imran Khan may project himself as an agent of change but look at the social class that surrounds him. It is no different from Zia, Musharraf, Zardari or Nawaz Sharif. He is surrounded by the likes of Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Jehangir Tareen,” said Mr Bengali.
Ms Haq strongly felt that people have to follow the processes, and that debates should take place in parliament and provincial assemblies. Mr Salahuddin gave the analogy of the Titanic to emphasise that democracy must be allowed to take root. “Do you know that when the Titanic ship was sinking, the band kept playing on.”
Mr Bengali jumped into the conversation in the light of his experience of working with the Balochistan government saying that it was because of the efforts of the previous democratic government that gave the 18th Amendment and the NFC that made a huge difference to smaller provinces. “If democracy is derailed, then even this helpline to Balochistan will be snapped forever.”
Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2014