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Morality in Pakistan’s politics

July 16, 2017

THE report released recently by the joint investigation team probing the Panama Papers case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family has raised the political temperature. It has also exposed the moral crisis of our society, as well as the growing political parochialism. These have only deepened in recent years.

The use of abusive language, the hurling of baseless and damaging accusations, and the mocking of opponents have already been accepted as political norms in Pakistan. Ironically, all this is done in the name of upholding morality. While such practices are more or less part of the political culture of all South Asian nations, Pakistan in particular, the morality tool is used by the powers that be to legitimise or delegitimise certain political actors.

Interestingly, in the local diction of politics, the antonym of morality is not immorality, but corruption. Politics and politicians are deemed immoral because they are corrupt, and loot and misuse public money. Veteran politician Javed Hashmi is spot-on when he criticises the selective, opaque and subjective accountability of politicians. Corruption is a disease and a crime and whoever commits it must be brought to justice. Yet employing a selective morality approach entails the risk of not only blurring the political and legal domains, but also providing political space to the apolitical.

Different groups seek power and legitimacy through developing their own moral orders.

The morality issue — including imposing one’s idea of morality on others — is complex and widespread in Pakistan, and not confined to politics alone. While its varying shades reflect in our behaviours, different institutions use it in multiple contexts. Morality is a social value, which can extract legitimacy from religion, social contract or cultural norms, but it cannot be an alternative to the rule of law. Academically, the rule of law is distinguished from democracy, human rights, and social justice. The rule of law does not challenge morality and neither does it intervene in political or democratic processes. But power elites confuse the rule of law with morality, believing that authoritarian structures can be sustained only on moral grounds.

Where does the public stand in the debate over the rule of law and morality? The PML-N leadership is using the argument that it is the right of the people to decide the fate of the government through the electoral process. However, public support cannot be an alternative to the supremacy of the law, as people choose a government to govern under the Constitution and the rule of law. Secondly, electoral accountability applies to government performance, not to an individual’s conduct in violating the rule of law.

Different groups and institutions seek power and legitimacy through developing their own moral orders. Religious segments consider themselves the custodians of morality, mainly in the social and religious domains. Security circles — and now the judiciary, too — feel an obligation to establish a political moral order. Neither challenges the other; rather they have developed a compatibility with each other’s moral orders.

It is well known that religious-political parties have political stakes as well, and differ with the establishment on certain issues. Yet their differences remain confined to a manageable domain where both try to avoid breaking up the system. The consensus on the Legal Framework Order between the military regime and the religious parties’ alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), in 2002, which allowed Gen Musharraf to continue ruling in military uniform, is an example. In return, the MMA not only saved its provincial governments in the then NWFP (KP) and Balochistan, but also saved from disqualification those of its members of parliament whose madressah degrees were not compatible with university graduation degrees.

In the NWFP, the MMA government tried to expand the outreach of its moral order through the introduction of the Hasba bill (Sharia implementation bill) in 2003, but this was challenged and nullified by the Supreme Court. It was an attempt to codify their moral order into a legal framework, but it was a breach of their determined role and power elites stopped the party from doing so. In subsequent years, religious parties stuck to their main role in the social and religious domains, and the power elites hardly disturbed them when they demonstrated their moral order on the streets.

Political parties, however, do not fit into this equation of partnership with the security establishment. They are reminded time and again that they must be subservient to the security establishment, particularly when they try to ‘assert’ themselves — at times even in the areas the Constitution puts them in charge of. The MMA’s attempt to legalise its moral order was foiled, but the establishment had already succeeded in codifying its moral order through introducing amendments in Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution in 1985.

There does exist a body that can become a bridge between institutions — parliament. Ironically, the ruling party has remained indifferent to parliament, which has also provided space to apolitical forces to outclass the government using the morality argument.

The moral question becomes more dangerous when parliament is not given sovereign status by the power elites, including political forces. This, however, does not harm anyone more than the political parties themselves, the political process and above all, the ruling party. When parliament does not take the lead in shaping the narratives and managing conflicts, it creates grey areas that anyone can exploit. The political leadership should have the ability to identify the grey areas, rather than operating in this murky space.

The current political crisis also presents an opportunity to the political leadership to review their actions. The ruling parties in particular should amend their approach of undermining parliament. This is the parliament that can review Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution and establish parity among institutions while strengthening the rule of law, accountability, and transparency.

On paper, the supremacy of parliament seems attractive; but in practice, political parties avoid making it their source of strength and prefer to play on the morally high political ground. Perhaps, it is easier to challenge opponents than the status quo.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2017