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The political process

Updated September 25, 2016

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The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition provides an incisive look at a crucial period in Pakistan’s history: from 2008 till 2013. The book is a five-part compilation of published articles that places the latest chapter of Pakistani democracy on a larger political map, providing a reasonable recognition of its strengths and a thorough diagnosis of its ailments.

In 2008, Pervez Musharraf’s crumbling dictatorship gave way to the turbulent rebirth of democratic rule in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto returned from her self-imposed exile in October 2007, and was subsequently assassinated at a rally a few weeks before the elections. Nonetheless, her party came into power as part of a coalition government in 2008, with the controversial figure of her husband now at the helm of a country burdened by a brain-dead economy, political infighting and religious militancy. In 2013, the country would see its first democratic transfer of power between consecutive governments, opening a new chapter in the story of Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

During this period, Raza Rumi became a figure respected for his sharp political commentary and his infectious enthusiasm for the relatively secular, spiritual traditions of Sufi Islam. After giving up his career in development and finance, Rumi took up journalism, churning out articles in local newspapers, most of which centred on the fundamental questions concerning Pakistan’s democracy: Would it survive? What could be done to preserve, improve and sustain it? His scathing criticism of religious extremism earned him an unenviable spot on a hit-list, and in 2014, after an assassination attempt took the life of his colleague and companion, Rumi left Pakistan and moved to the US.

The Fractious Path is the story of a country at a crossroads. The first part of the book looks at the latest democratic transition in the country. There is no doubt in Rumi’s mind that the only way forward for Pakistan is through a consistent and strategic fortification of democratic institutions. He is cognisant of the fact that Pakistani democracy is largely a dispassionate, elitist affair, but to him, democracy is an interactive process, not an end in itself. It needs time to take root, to create itself, to cultivate its own political culture — something Pakistanis have been routinely deprived of participating in. Without the participation of people, democracy is merely a cosmetic principle in politics. Hence a two-way process needs to be initiated: “The naysayers of democracy and the political process forget one fundamental fact: a federal structure cannot work without a robust political process. A start has been made through the recent successes after a decade of ‘controlled democracy’. However, despite the march towards the democratic ideal, there are clear and present dangers that keep democracy as fragile as ever.”

As political infighting dogged the early days of democracy’s resurrection in Pakistan, Rumi urged all parties to unite against a military comeback. He observes that institutions previously prone to direct control by the state were now ballooning to the point that their obedience was no longer a given. Media freedoms first ushered in by Gen Pervez Musharraf played an instrumental role in his downfall. So did the Lawyers Movement. By 2012, non-dynastic parties such as Tehreek-i-Insaf had entered the mainstream and a new military commander was taking on an existential enemy: the Taliban. This, Rumi believes, opened up a new space for democratic politics to assert itself again.

The second part of the book contains articles on security, conflict and extremism in Pakistan. Muslim nationalism has been part of Pakistan’s security policy since its birth in 1947, but its tentacles reached ever farther when Pakistan started using religious militancy in the Afghan-Soviet war, hoping to win the favour of the US whilst later engineering militant rebellions in the much-coveted India-held Kashmir.

It goes without saying that Pakistan and India have wasted a lot of reconciliatory potential by spending decades trying to teach each other a lesson. Rumi staunchly believes that Pakistan needs to reassess its “threat perception” and recognise the real, existential cause for concern, i.e. religious terrorism: “Pakistani society itself is now a victim of the misplaced emphasis on using proxies to wage a low-intensity, yet lethal battle against India,” Rumi writes.

According to Rumi, India’s policy towards Pakistan is often laden with a similar sense of petty comeuppance, especially in its support for Baloch nationalists. However, he argues that the continued militarisation of Balochistan is not the answer — Pakistan will first have to give up its own brand of Punjab-centrism and articulate a more inclusive form of national identity (based on political principles rather than ethnic origins) which can address the grievances of the Baloch population.

In the third part of the book, ‘Governance, Institutions and Reform in Pakistan’, Rumi substantiates his policy recommendations: The civil service requires immediate reform, electoral accountability needs to be improved, civilian institutions need better training and equipment in order to tackle the threat of terrorism (the latter is particularly relevant today, given the extra-judicial powers gained by the military establishment under the pretext of its anti-terrorism operations). Moreover, Pakistan needs to stop sacrificing the moral consistency of its political system for short-term gains and most of all, it needs to let go of its most precious delusions about national identity. A country as diverse as Pakistan cannot be reduced to a handful of provinces. The system will have to open itself up to smaller political units for grassroots democracy to flourish: “The ‘one nation, one faith’ bogey has not delivered in the six decades of its existence,” he writes.

The fourth part of the book deals with foreign policy, which is largely intertwined with Pakistan’s security issues, and thus, determined by the military. Rumi offers a scathing review of Pakistan’s hubris and delusional self-important in the international arena, and condemns it for its unwillingness to acknowledge its mistakes. The horror unleashed on East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh) during the civil war of 1971 is a thorn in the side of our former fellow citizens, which requires us to apologise, rather than blame everything that happened on Indian interference. Regarding India, Rumi’s argument is simple: If our enemy provokes the worst in us, who are we to hold ourselves superior? He argues for greater trade and security cooperation between the two countries.

The final part of the book turns its gaze on Pakistan’s noisy media landscape. Dedicated to Sabeen Mahmud, this book is an essential read for anyone who wants to better understand the course of Pakistani democracy, and the sacrifices made by ordinary civilians for its survival. One hopes that Rumi will one day pen a follow-up, addressing the challenges that have emerged since 2013, and the opportunities missed in carrying his vision forward, and that of Sabeen and countless other departed.

Farhad Mirza is a journalist and researcher from Lahore. You can follow him on Twitter @farhadmirza01.

The Fractious Path: Pakistan’s Democratic Transition
(POLITICS)
By Raza Rumi
HarperCollins India
ISBN: 978-9351777304
376pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2016