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Self-appointed messiahs

January 12, 2011

THERE is no denying that the current government has been a deep disappointment, even to its devoted supporters, not merely because of its inefficiency but more for its failure to show any interest in governance.

Resultantly, not only is the economy on the point of collapse and national institutions crumbling, but the very fabric of the state appears to be tearing apart. As if this was not enough, the self-appointed guardians of our morals and beliefs have now taken it upon themselves to cleanse society of those that do not conform to their warped concepts.

The suffering of the masses is so extensive that it is prompting many to question the very wisdom and viability of democratic institutions. Even more frightening is that this sense of despair could once again encourage 'adventurers' and self-appointed messiahs to fish in troubled waters, as was evident from Gen (retd) Musharraf's article published recently in this newspaper.

As an effort to refurbish his credentials, his argument failed dismally. He comes across as still living in the past, convinced of his infallibility and confident of his indispensability. The fact that he had to flee the country on account of country-wide protests appears not to have registered.

Mr Musharraf refuses to accept that his decade-long authoritarian rule primarily accounts for the many ills currently afflicting this country. Not one major project can be credited to him, nor one worthwhile policy that he could bequeath to his successors.

Though he was the fourth in the line of generals who violated their oaths as soldiers, he has the distinction of having done this more than once. Having overthrown an elected government, sent parliament packing and causing some political leaders to go into exile, he created an edifice based on duplicity. When it began to collapse, he once again violated the constitution and its laws, muzzling the media, locking up members of civil society and attempting to sack the chief justice.

In his article, Mr Musharraf claims that “democracy is an obsession with the West”. He ignores reality in not recognising that it is an “obsession” with humans the world over, irrespective of their colour or creed. What else would explain the unceasing struggle, at enormous cost, in the hamlets of Africa and the fair fields of South America?

Closer to home, is it not “obsession” with democracy that has sustained the heroic struggle of the Burmese people, led by a seemingly fragile widow, Aung San Suu Kyi? Indeed, the very birth of Pakistan was the result of a democratic choice by the Muslims of the subcontinent.

The general seeks justification for what he referred to as “tailoring democracy” by bringing up the “existential threat” that he felt Pakistan faces from India and the “centrifugal forces” acting against national security from within. Yet as regards to standing up to the Indian threat, the track record of authoritarian regimes is abysmal. The first military ruler, who had the brilliance to gift to Pakistan a democracy “suited to the genius of the people”, initiated a war that sowed the seeds of separatism in the eastern wing. The second ignominiously lost half the country, while the third was unaware of the loss of strategic Siachen, so consumed was he by his passion to make us all good Muslims.

Mr Musharraf, meanwhile, launched the unauthorised adventure in Kargil which not only cost the lives of thousands of soldiers but left Pakistan ostracised by the international community. Meanwhile, with just one phone call, he succumbed to a foreign power's onerous demands, oblivious to the country's long-term interests. Most disastrous of all was his continued mollycoddling of extremists and militants.

Though it may have been the American preacher, Theodore Parker, who defined democracy as “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people”, (later made famous by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address in 1863), the idea of an elected and accountable government is almost as old as mankind itself. Whereas in the animal kingdom, leadership is determined by raw power, humans seek some say in determining who should govern them. It may also be true that democracy can be slow, inefficient, and occasionally even corrupt, but as Winston Churchill remarked that it may be “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

The general claims that the state's security needs should be given precedence over democracy. In fact, there is no contradiction between the two. They are mutually reinforcing, for a state is far stronger when its rulers enjoy a popular mandate.

Mr Musharraf would have been well-served had he recalled that the most dangerous moment in the life of the young American Republic came in March 1783, when the officers of the Revolutionary Army, profoundly unhappy with their elected representatives, gathered to discuss seizing power.

It was the country's good fortune that its then Commander-in Chief, Gen Washington, used all his powers of pressure and persuasion to dissuade the angry officers, urging them to “give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings”. n

A multi-ethnic and multi- linguistic state such as Pakistan cannot afford even a unitary system of government, far less an authoritarian regime. In fact, experiments with systems in which power and privilege are maintained by an individual or a class in perpetuity would be utterly disastrous. At such a time as this, when extremism and militancy are striking at the very roots of this country, it is only a democratic polity, responsive to the people and sensitive to their interests, that can create domestic consensus and tolerance. And these are essential to prevent this land from what appears to be its head-long plunge into anarchy.