FEDERAL Minister Faisal Vawda’s publicly stated desire to bypass the Constitution and the law to ‘hang 5,000 people’ in order to ‘reform’ Pakistan was not shocking, given his track record of coming up with the most bizarre and ludicrous of remarks.
In the past, he has claimed his party’s government was capable of providing ‘lakhs of jobs within days’. TV images are fresh in one’s mind of the minister arriving at the scene of the terrorist attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi wearing a flak jacket with a pistol thrust in his trousers wanting to ‘take them on’ even as the security forces were neutralising the militants.
The minister was appearing on a talk show when he made the latest assertion. The PML-N’s Khurram Dastgir, who was also on the panel, spoke for many in calling the statement a manifestation of ‘fascism’.
More than Mr Vawda’s words what was troubling was that a number of sources have suggested that certain participants at a meeting cited such figures in a nonchalant manner.
This fetish, it seems, is driven by a (mis)belief that China’s economic progress owes itself solely to its autocratic dispensation.
Can we assume that Mr Vawda, who always seems to be floating high in the air with his feet barely ever on the ground, was merely guilty of publicly parroting what he heard from those he considers credible?
The irony is that this ‘kill 5,000’ panacea or solution to all that ails Pakistan has come in the context of the floundering project that the current civilian setup finds itself dealing with. The state of the economy and the dismal picture that the Economic Survey painted of missed targets have been debated threadbare.
We could opt for the democratic path where the rulers accept legitimate criticism, or follow the example of repressive regimes.
The government’s stance so far has been to hold its predecessors responsible, even where its own performance in managing the economy falls in the no-show category. But who does it have to blame in areas where it could have moved quickly and decisively to establish its writ?
It was a sad spectacle and no more than attempted obfuscation when the government moved to call upon a member of the cabinet, Ms Zartaj Gul, to withdraw a letter her office had written to the interior secretary in support of the job application of her sister for a government agency position.
Whether this ‘withdrawal’ had any meaning would have been determined by cause and effect. Despite having waited for two weeks, one is still to hear whether the National Counter-Terrorism Authority has withdrawn one of the deputy directorships offered to the minister of state’s sister.
Similarly, prima facie damning investigative reports have appeared in the media of Mr Vawda himself owning a number of ‘undeclared’ properties abroad. Neither he nor the government have deemed it necessary to offer comment, let alone a denial, so far.
This seriously undermines the government’s cred and makes its high-horse perch questionable. For its part, the government does not seem too concerned by such instances. Look at how the Sahiwal motorway murder issue has been handled.
The Punjab police’s Counterterrorism department chief, who was sacked by an angry prime minister within days of the incident, was reinstated months ago. In the incident, an unarmed man, his wife, and their 14-year-old daughter were among those killed and their minor children injured in January this year.
Police initially labelled all the victims as terrorists. Later, it transpired that they were innocent travellers.
The government defused the crisis, where the law-and-order situation was threatening to turn ugly due to protests and its own credibility was taking a hit, by promising the affected families the sky in terms of delivering justice.
Since then it has not supported the families in their attempts to seek the transfer of the trial to a jurisdiction away from Sahiwal. The families say they have been threatened and feel vulnerable while attending proceedings and testifying, having to travel so far from their Lahore homes for each hearing.
At the same time, the prime minister has gone on record to share his unease at the criticism he faces in parliament (on the few occasions he has made an appearance). This is surprising as he routinely cites examples of Western democracies and societies as if they were the gold standard of civilised norms.
One wonders if he has watched the proceedings of the House of Commons, the British lower house which is said to be the mother of all parliaments. Prime ministers and cabinet members are often targeted in the harshest of terms in the Commons, yet always bear such barbs with a smile, in line with democratic traditions.
Pakistan now seems yet again poised at a crossroads. It could take the painful path and opt for the democratic direction where the rulers learn to accept legitimate criticism in parliament and in the media as constructive as it allows for course corrections when mistakes have been or are being made.
Or it can follow the example of Egypt or Sudan where regimes backed and funded by Saudi Arabia have oppressed their own people brutally. This seems to be a path too tempting to resist as some of the decisions and actions of the powers that be have suggested in recent months.
Even if it may seem tempting, this route is like a minefield, given the Pakistani people’s penchant for freedom and also given the diversity that the federation represents. Add to this equation the fact that hostile foreign powers sit across most of our borders.
The only true safeguard for the continued well-being of our beloved country and its safety is the unity of its federating units, people and institutions with each acknowledging and appreciating the strength that the diversity of the other brings to the table.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2019