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No good signs

October 05, 2011

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SO, the PML-N has unsheathed its daggers and launched what looks like an all-out campaign to bring down the Gilani coalition government earlier than the general election is due.

The main theatre of action, for obvious reasons, is Punjab where two movements can be seen. First, a highly publicised campaign to control the dengue epidemic is appearing more and more a drive to convince the people of the PML-N’s capacity to deliver. The basic assumption seems to be that hectic gyrations by the custodians of power can often be as good as a job done well.

There is no doubt that the chief minister has experimented with quite a few out-of-the box cures. For many days, he has been busy round the clock chasing the dreaded mosquito all over the provincial capital, though by the same token the administration’s incompetence is everyday confirmed. Why couldn’t the army of officials drawing fat salaries visit old tyre shops and choked drains, tasks that Mr Shahbaz Sharif has to undertake himself at the risk of aggravating his back problem? But then, popularity is not available at cut-price.

The second line of the PML-N’s offensive is its assumption of the leadership of mobs that are burning tyres on thoroughfares and highways, blocking traffic and ransacking government premises. It can be said in defence of the party that it cannot ignore the wave of anger caused by long periods of disruption in electricity supply, especially when the main sponsors of protest, the business people, also constitute its core. Any other party too that chooses to sit on the fence in such situations risks the loss of a public following. Thus the PML-N can neither be blamed for trying to make capital out of a situation precipitated by a variety of factors nor can it be denied the right to improve its standing with the people at the cost of the government.

What will, however, cause considerable anxiety in democratic circles is the danger that a large-scale breakdown of law and order could undermine Mian Nawaz Sharif’s principled rejection of any change of regime through extra-constitutional means.

Energy shortage is a most explosive issue. It not only deprives the people of the basic comforts they expect as of right but also affects all branches of economic activity. Millions of workers are facing a severe threat to their livelihoods. Medical services have also been adversely affected and several deaths are reported to have been caused by the sudden cessation of electricity supply. If political parties start promoting violent demonstrations the country may find itself facing a situation like the workers’ agitation of 1968-69 and the trade-led movement against Bhutto of 1977.

The workers’ agitation against the Ayub regime was exploited by Yahya Khan to establish his own dictatorship, and the movement of 1977 only helped Ziaul Haq to usher in the most oppressive regime that Pakistan has ever been victim of. True, Yahya Khan made a show of rewarding the labour for its 1968-69 agitation by announcing a policy that offered it some relief but in real terms the workers were as badly off as before. And although Ziaul Haq did compensate the industrial barons and traders for their part in the movement against Bhutto and blinked at all possible malpractices by them, the people had to pay dearly for his misdeeds. Indeed, they are still paying for Zia’s misrule.

Many other examples can be given to show that the fruits of anarchy are usually not reserved for its authors. No politician should forget that the only beneficiaries of a prolonged and violent confrontation between the government and the opposition will be authoritarian forces. The situation could spin out of the politicians’ control, and all those who oppose extra-constitutional interventions might become irrelevant.

This does not mean that the opposition parties alone should try to save the democratic system from derailment. The primary responsibility for this lies with the parties that are in power and the only way they can discharge their duty is to convince the people that they are doing whatever is possible to ensure the responsible management of national affairs. At the moment, the government is suffering from a huge trust deficit. It has utterly failed to understand the implications of the energy crisis and has been unable to manage an adequate response.

That the country is paying for the neglect of the energy sector during the decade of the Zia dictatorship is no secret. Also conceded is the fact that the present government inherited a bad situation. But no government can live on such excuses alone.

It was, and is, the government’s duty to pull the country out of the morass created by its predecessors.

From the very beginning it should have realised that a massive increase in energy resources would be key to efficient governance and public good. Not only was priority not attached to power-generation projects, the possibilities of increasing fuel imports were not properly explored either. On top of everything else, delays in payments to power producers led to the non-utilitisation of the installed capacity. It is clear that the policy of reliance on water flows and loadshedding methods has only aggravated the situation and increased public discontent.

Further, public grievance against power shortages has been considerably increased by the people’s perception of the government’s functioning being poor in most of the areas of direct concern to them. As Mr Bhutto used to point out, constitutional provisions cannot fill the stomachs of hungry persons. Likewise, accolades heaped on all-party jamborees cannot light a single bulb. The government will not only be digging its own grave but also putting far more precious things at stake if it fails to read the signs and does not begin offering proof of its capacity to at least stand by the restless multitude.

What the country needs is a crash programme to ease the energy crisis, create more jobs and improve guarantees of security of life and liberty to all citizens. Nothing less than this will guarantee democracy’s survival, or even Pakistan’s integrity.