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What imperils democracy?

Updated October 17, 2015


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Every now and then there has been talk of threats to democracy at the hands of the forces inimical to representative rule and civilian leadership and, given the country’s history, such arguments often appear to carry weight.

Then it is difficult to count the number of times analysts on the media have said how the military has expanded its influence over many areas such as internal security, defence and foreign policy to name just a few and the GHQ’s ascendancy has seen a proportionate shrinkage of the civilian role in decision-making.

When the first civilian-to-civilian transition happened following the 2013 elections, after Mian Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N edged past the number of seats required to form a government in Islamabad on its own, optimism was spurred because it was believed that unencumbered by the compromises of a coalition, the party would deliver exemplary governance.

It was also believed that the PML-N’s considerable experience in power, and more significantly in the opposition, would allow it to form and run a government that would be the envy of all political parties in the country. There was no doubt Pakistan needed good, sure-footed governance. The country was being torn apart by terrorist violence and crippling power shortages were threatening to stall industry and consequently the economy. Left unaddressed for long, challenges of poverty, unemployment and lack of healthcare and education were threatening to assume crisis-like dimensions.

While the conduct of many PML-N leaders may make them look like political jokers, they will struggle to compete with the PPP.

When Nawaz Sharif formed his cabinet, comprised mainly of a trusted group of lieutenants, who re­mained loyal to him during his period in the political wilderness from 1999 to 2007, there was near-consensus among commentators that his entire team would be on the same page and speak as one on critical issues.

Fast forward to the autumn of 2015 and where are we? Well many of the ministers are not on talking terms with each other. This is no speculation. Look at Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s statement that he doesn’t need to ‘go through’ the defence minister for discussions with GHQ.

Nisar Ali Khan seemed to be responding to Khawaja Asif, who wears the defence and water and power ministerial hats. He proudly told the media that he hadn’t spoken with cabinet colleague Nisar Ali Khan in some four years but that didn’t mean they couldn’t work together in the national interest. Only Khawaja Asif will know the exact meaning of his rather cryptic statement.

His own performance as defence minister is as grand as that of Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan as policy in both their ministries is being dictated and executed by GHQ, with the ministers, of course, invited now and then to make public appearances on key national holidays/occasions. As for Nisar Ali Khan, the less said the better after the army shredded his desire to hold talks with the Taliban.

Now let’s turn to the performance of the power ministry. Astronomical amounts of ‘circular debt’ (the first tranche was more than Rs300 billion many years ago) continues to be ‘parked’ God knows where and at last count had more zeros than I can count.

The Nandipur power plant disaster has so far seen only a bureaucratic head roll. In a democracy one would have liked to see political leadership held to account too. But that desire is never likely to be fulfilled as the project has a bit of a special status.

Technically, it falls under the water and power ministry, but in reality Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif and his son are known to oversee not just this but many other power projects too. Where the prime minister’s close family members are running key projects (who will hold them to account for failures?), the equivalent of crumbs is left for the ministers in charge of ministries.

Their obvious frustration spills over in other ways. It was a bit of a joke to see Khawaja Asif and the petroleum minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, attacking in public the Planning Commission run by Wharton-educated Ahsan Iqbal who, for his part, rushed to the prime minister to complain and got a vague statement of support from him.

There are dozens of other stories one could mention. This is about the cabinet frictions only. If you cast a wider eye on the PML-N you’ll find considerable evidence of bickering in the province such as the current infighting involving Faisalabad party stalwart Chaudhry Sher Ali who has accused key Punjab minister Rana Sanaullah of being responsible for 20 murders. While the conduct of many PML-N leaders and ministers may make them look like political jokers, they will struggle to compete with the PPP. The party which once had a finger on the pulse of the electorate and reflected the aspirations of the masses now needs a committee to ascertain the causes of its electoral debacles.

If it was really unaware of why it has lost public appeal and endorsement and was earnest about finding out the reason, it should have asked a panel of outsiders to analyse and report back. Now a group of senior leaders who have collectively brought the party to this pass by not challenging the leader will report back to themselves with their assessment. Utterly painful joke if one could call it that.

This is a critical period for democracy in the country. Pakistanis are not renowned for their memory. So, after the launch of Zarb-i-Azb and a sharp decline in terrorist incidents across the country there is very little discussion on how and why the militants got so strong. Given the sacrifices of the soldiers on the front line there is hardly any room left to examine the state’s use of non-state actors/assets.

The only way to safeguard democracy is for the political class to raise its game to unprecedented levels, deliver good governance and earn a reputation as serious and competent players. If the politicians can’t do that they’ll be left to blame themselves and lament their fate.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 17th , 2015

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