A mean streak

July 13, 2019


ALWAYS a blood sport in Pakistan, politics is not for the faint of heart: you need sharp elbows, a thick skin and a flexible conscience.

For most people, a stint in jail is a blemish on their professional and social standing, but for politicians, it is a badge of honour. Many treat it as a useful addition to their credentials, signifying that they were a thorn in the side of the ruling party.

In the past, jail authorities permitted a certain number of amenities like food from home, reading material and family visits. Of course, those who represented a genuine threat to rulers had a very different experience: witness the fate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was convicted after a farcical trial, and shamefully treated in jail before being hanged in the dead of night.

As vindictiveness has become a permanent feature of Pakistani politics, jail time has become harsher. Now, Imran Khan’s government has banned another elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from receiving cooked meals from home. We know he is partial to his nihari, but to deprive an ailing 70-year-old of decent food is a nasty, petty act that speaks volumes for our leadership.

To deprive an ailing 70-year-old of decent food is nasty.

This kind of mean-spirited desire to humiliate the opposition is also reflected in the treatment of the media. TV channels and newspapers have felt the deep bite of the government’s lash. As Zohra Yusuf wrote here recently, the media had more freedom under Gen Zia than it does now. It is ironic that we now regard that vicious stint of martial law as being less suffocating than the manipulated civilian rule we are living under.

Our judiciary has traditionally played handmaiden to the executive, especially when the military has called the shots. With brief exceptions when the higher judiciary has gone over the top, and made governance virtually impossible by its non-stop suo motu notices, our judges have usually given succour to the powerful.

Selective accountability has tarred their image, and the ongoing attack on the reputation of an upright judge has further dented the judiciary’s role as a neutral arbiter. The recent emergence of a tape purportedly showing Arshad Malik, a judge of the Islamabad High Court, confessing to being pressured to give a verdict against Nawaz Sharif, shows how easily our judiciary rolls over when facing the power of the state.

In his defence, the judge claims that the tape was somehow doctored, and he had been offered bribes to let Sharif off the hook. The information adviser to the prime minister has declared that Nasir Butt, the person with whom the judge had the conversation, is a murderer and a PML-N supporter. If this is indeed so, it was highly improper for a senior judge to have had a long association with him. Also, he ought to have reported the offer of a bribe long ago when it was made.

The question to ask is what has caused this government to lash out at anyone seen to be opposing it. A few years ago, when Pakistan was dependent on the US for military and economic support, Washington had considerable leverage with Islamabad. Not for nothing was the US ambassador to Pakistan constantly petitioned and courted by politicians and generals alike.

But alliances are never permanent: shrinking aid flows have seen a decline in Washington’s influence. Earlier concerns about human rights have been overtaken by Trump’s callousness and indifference. Also, India has replaced Pakistan as America’s principal partner in the region.

Now that we have largely burned our boats to the West and curry favour with Beijing and Riyadh, our rulers are no longer restrained in committing human rights violations. Reports in Western media about electoral fraud are dismissed as ‘fake news’. And China and Saudi Arabia are hardly torchbearers for civil liberties.

As the ruling combine is emboldened, and a culture of impunity spreads, democratic values — never firmly entrenched — are threatened. The space for civil society shrinks correspondingly, and all forms of opposition face persecution.

In this chilling scenario, it is the duty of the major parties to join hands and oppose this wanton destruction of democratic institutions so painfully built up in the face of the establishment’s opposition. Sadly, this does not seem to be on the cards. Nawaz Sharif’s treatment of Asif Zardari in the 1990s, when the former president was in jail over corruption charges, was pretty nasty. More recently, he oversaw a crackdown on Zardari’s henchmen.

Zardari is too small-minded to put personal grievances aside for the greater good. As a feudal, he neither forgets, nor forgives real and imaginary slights which have to be avenged, even if democracy is destroyed. But Zardari also knows that if he steps out of line, the establishment can put the squeeze on him. As it is, he is facing multiple corruption charges. And so it goes as we veer from democratic aspirations to authoritarian reality.


Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2019