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Panama lessons

July 20, 2017


WHATEVER its final outcome, the Panama leaks case offers the country’s politicians many important lessons which, if properly followed, could help Pakistan realise the goal of democratic consolidation.

The first lesson is that no party in power should drive an opposition group to the wall because the latter might seek extra-constitutional support to gain what it considers to be its due. This is fully borne out by the course adopted by opposition parties in their fights with governments. The most significant example is, of course, the PNA’s labours to queer the pitch, leading to Gen Ziaul Haq’s takeover.

The whole campaign against Nawaz Sharif had its roots in his rejection of Imran Khan’s demand to have the 2013 results of some National Assembly constituencies rechecked, which prompted the PTI chief to look for other means to settle his scores with the prime minister. It was perhaps through his shielding of a couple of loyalists that the prime minister started building his road to disaster. If the parties in power remember this, Pakistan’s politics and democracy will gain considerably.

The second lesson is that the consolidation of democratic institutions is impossible without properly functioning democratic parties. For months, the state of Pakistan has been virtually paralysed and critical issues of governance and public interest have been ignored. And all this to throw out a prime minister, something for which the Constitution provides a simple and speedy procedure.

Throughout this period, we have seen neither the government nor its challenger consult their respective parties. This means that both sides treat their parties as packs of bonded slaves. A most serious corollary is the exclusion of the masses from the political discourse. They cannot be represented by a small group of intermediaries of dubious character. If, in future, those in power and those in the opposition operate through their party apparatus, they might find among the masses people who are capable of guiding them out of any crisis.

It is time serious students of politics pondered the state’s distaste for democratic practices.

Another significant lesson offered by the Big Case is that those who enter politics and aspire to elected offices have no private life. What they do or what they avoid doing in private life has a bearing on their public life. They cannot denounce child labour in public and employ children at home. Even if the country’s middle class believes in living beyond its means, the politicians must at least appear to be living within their legitimate resources. Regardless of the state’s being notorious for lack of documentation or for its reliance on unverified statistics, they must keep their books in order.

The next lesson relates to the confusion caused in underdeveloped democracies by morality brigades. Universally acknowledged authorities have given clear warnings against mixing morality with politics and justice — because politics is the art of the possible and not what is morally desirable. Meanwhile, the law must be interpreted by the courts without being linked to the morality issues raised by political parties.

Yet we are caught in a noisy hullabaloo caused by attempts to decide political issues by what goes as public morality, a practice which should have gone out of favour after the career of a popular Irish leader was destroyed by his rival MPs by planting a sex worker in his room.

Specifically, the present case has underlined the dangers of relying on Ziaul Haq’s amendments to Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution that are incompatible with democratic norms. This does not mean that violators of the law should not be prevented from becoming or continuing as lawmakers — they can be dealt with under the normal law. Anyone found guilty of an offence involving moral turpitude has no right to sit in any elective body for a certain period.

Yet another lesson of the present commotion is the need to review the tradition of looking only at the charge sheet against a politician and ignoring the need to look at the credentials of the challengers or likely successors. We made the mistake of accepting Ayub Khan’s indictment of politicians and were rewarded with a decade of dictatorial rule that made disintegration of the state inevitable. We accepted the demonisation of politicians by Ziaul Haq, and quite a few of our coming generations are going to pay for his gifts of extremism, gun culture, abuse of religion for political ends and authoritarian patterns of governance.

It is time serious students of politics pondered the state’s distaste for democratic practices. What will be said about a country that first deposes a prime minister and then hangs him after a controversial trial, sacks and imprisons another prime minister and puts yet another prime minister on the rack?

The fault lines must be seen beyond the persons involved. The future of Nawaz Sharif does not matter; he has to answer for whatever he has done, but Pakistan will not become a healthy polity until the basic assumptions underlying state policies — narrow-minded religiosity, elitism, discrimination against women and minorities and disregard for the week and the poor — are not abandoned.

Every righteous-looking movement is a disguise for a political objective. The anti-Ahmadi agitation was a political affair and so were the PNA agitation and Ziaul Haq’s claims of promoting Islam. What has Nawaz Sharif done apart from making money to earn the wrath of powerful forces?

One explanation doing the rounds is that if he stays on till March 2018 his party will capture the Senate and he will enjoy a heavy mandate such as he had in 1999, and there will be trouble. Even otherwise, a strong elected government is not considered good for the country. But instead of throwing the country in turmoil every now and then, a mechanism of checks and balances can be devised to keep heavy majorities under control — to the necessary extent.

Pakistan will only have itself to blame for the consequences of not learning from the Panama case.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2017