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How to save democracy

December 23, 2011

"As we move at a breakneck speed towards another terminal clash between the state and the government, it is about time that the politicians close rank – forgiving and forgetting and creating a new consensus for reforming the state in line with the democratic principles." – File Photo

Pakistan’s most fundamental and most perennial fault-line – the one between the state and the government – is at the centre of the ongoing one-upmanship among different stakeholders. And the arguments being made by the warring sides are pretty much emblematic – the government is threatening the very existence of the state with its corruption, misrule and dubious behavior on the issues of foreign policy and national security; the state is threatening to topple democracy by trying to topple the government. The truth could be anywhere between these two extremes. The historical evidence, though, points out that the state has done visible damage to democracy by imposing the military on to the power at the cost of popularly elected governments whereas the jury is still out whether elected prime ministers and their administrations – starting from Liaqat Ali Khan through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Muhammad Khan Junejo, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to Yousuf Raza Gilani – caused any real or tangible damage to the state. After all, no elected government can be blamed for the wars of 1965 and 1971; the Siachen glacier was not lost under a Bhutto or a Junejo; the Kargil happened behind the back of Sharif; and it was Musharraf who gave in to the Americans in the wake of 9/11; it was also under him that we first lost Waziristan, and then Orakzai, Kurram, Mohmand and finally Swat. If anything, the writ of the state has made a semblance of a comeback in some of these areas under the incumbent democratic administration.

But all this incriminating evidence does not deter the champions of the state to denigrate the government for its real or imagined acts of omission and commission – many of them being touted as treasonous and liable to fetch the maximum punishment. Leaving aside a discussion on the merits or otherwise of these accusations, the most important question to ask here is do the politicians in the government as well as the opposition realize the nature of the conflict between the state and the government and/or are they doing anything to either resolve it or overcome it. History suggests that the politicians have generally tried two things – challenging and winning (rarely employed with even rarer success); and conciliation and compromise, which the democracy idealist would call capitulation and surrender (often resorted to but, again, with little to no success). The state – which this piece sees as compromising the hardware of military and civil bureaucratic and judicial establishment and the software of national ideology and religious identity of the state and the society – has almost always had an upper hand. It was certainly with the objective to turn such defeats into possible wins that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif came up with the Charter of Democracy which now lies buried deep under their mutual recrimination and mudslinging.

But, as we move at a breakneck speed towards another terminal clash between the state and the government, it is about time that the politicians close rank – forgiving and forgetting and creating a new consensus for reforming the state in line with the democratic principles. Of course, the initiative has to come from the government and it should not hesitate a wee bit from conceding ground to other politicians even if that means agreeing to early polls (after all, it is a better option than to give in to the might of the state and go home without any election in sight). Secondly, it also needs to be realized that there are people in the opposition, such as Imran Khan, who do not have representation in the parliament but have been making waves across Pakistan and keeping them out of any dialogue between the political stakeholders will be like committing the folly of playing in the hands of the state. The opposition, particularly Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, needs to understand that it may win a battle or two in terms of rallies and even elections but it is sure to lose the war against the state if it fails to bridge the political divides and spurns the government’s hand of conciliation and consultation, if and when extended. This is what we experienced in 1990s when, after ten years of bitter rivalry between the politicians, the military had the last laugh for the next years at their collective expense. This time round, it is definitely not going to be any different: A Sharif government or an Imran administration of the future is sure to run into trouble with the military no matter how hard they will try to avoid it – remember Junejo in 1980s and Sharif himself in 1990s?

So the politicians need to stand down from their perches where they are aiming at bringing down each other and instead they should sit down to understand and strategize on what to do with their permanent adversary across Pakistan’s most stubborn divide. Call it a political roundtable among the equals, rather than a conference between the incumbents and the aspirants, between the so-called giants and the supposed pygmies. A give and take between the politicians, culminating in a consensus, may not save the government but it may save democracy and is the only way to take on the might of the state – its hardware as well as software. Are our politicians ready, or even willing, for this?

The writer is the editor of the Herald magazine