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Back on the rails?

January 19, 2012

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ALTHOUGH the pressure on the government seems to have eased somewhat, it is difficult to believe that the democracy train has been put back on the rails.

Those out to derail it haven't given up their mission.

The assaults on the government over the past many months and the arguments used against it have again confirmed the fact that representative governance in Pakistan is not only at the sufferance of the vested interest, it is still in an experimental stage. It may acquire the strength of a system, enjoying due respect by the rulers and the ruled alike, after some decades of uninterrupted evolution. Thus, developments that favour continuity of the democratic experiment are quite rare and hence more than ordinarily welcome when they do take place.

One such development is the PML-Nchief's decision to forge a united front to challenge the government in parliament. This course is in keeping with democracy's foremost principles. The coalition parties have the right to enjoy power only so long as they have amajority in the National Assembly and they can be ousted only when they lose its confidence. The opposition has every right to employ democratic means to defeat it on the floor of the Assembly, without involving any non-parliamentary element.

One wishes Nawaz Sharif had chosen this course from the beginning instead of embroiling the apex court in his battle for the country's overlordship, and that too in a manner that was bound to raise questions in laymen's minds about the judiciary's forays into a strictly political domain.

This also confirms the fact that promotion and defence of democratic norms is not the responsibility of the government alone; the two other pillars of a democratic dispensation, the political parties and the media, also need to contribute to the process.

The political parties often forget that they are operating in a pre-democracy phase of social development. Since they do not have indigenous conventions or a strong tradition of conforming with the universal democratic norms, they should not ignore the need to lay the foundations of democratically sound conventions.

For instance, one of the most important principles of democratic politics is the absolute necessity of abjuring recourse to extra-democratic forces to settle scores with political rivals. A happy development in the post-1999 years was an all-party consensus on thefullest possible respect for this principle.

Perhaps it is time the various political parties searched their hearts to ascertain whether they have respected their commitment on this point.

Besides, our political parties need to remember that politics is the art of the possible. They should lead the people in demanding only what is possible and also criticise their opponents within the same limits. Above all, they must not promise what they know to be beyond anyone's capacity to accomplish. When such promises cannot be redeemed the people lose faith in politics and politicians both.

Political parties also have the responsibility to conduct debates on genuine issues that edify the people and do not confuse or mislead them. For instance, when a politician attacks the government for seeking the protection of parliament he wishes to convince the people that a government elected by parliament has no right to revert to it. Such argu-ments are not only wrong, they are fraught with mischief.

For weeks now the political parties have been clamouring about a clash between institutions and arbitrarily increasing the number of state organs from the three (legislature, executive and judiciary) known to students of polltics. Sometimes disagreements between the armed forces and the executive heads are presented as clashes between institutions whereas the fact is that the armed forces are part of the executive and intra-executive differences of opinion cannot be described as clashes between institutions. Intra-institution disagreements are normal everywhere and in all organs of the state and these should not be inflated into matters of life and death unless the idea is to frighten the people into submission to one party's diktat or another's.

The people are being confused by a barren debate on the supremacy of parliament. It is said that the constitution and not parliament is supreme. There is little room for obfuscation on this point.

Nobody should forget that parliament's supremacy lies in the fact that it is not merely the product of the constitution but also the maker of the basic law, and it alone, out of the three state organs, has the authority to change the constitution.

Of course, its authority to amend the constitution is not absolute but it is not as limited as the executive or the judiciary would sometimes have us believe.

The matter is not to be discussed inabsolute terms; it has to be argued within the context of comparative levels of authority allowed to state organs.

One of the most misleading slogans one hears all the time is that the present set-up is so bad that its replacement by any regime is welcome. The cliché is theoretically wrong for the world, and our own people, know of regimes that are worse than the present imperfect democracy.

While discussing change on the basis of incumbent authorities' faults and failures, one should not fail to scrutinise the bona fides and capacity for goodness of those who wish to replace them. Was the regime established by the military rulers in 1958 better than the parliamentary arrangement it had subverted? Was Zia's retrogressive regime better than the one it had demolished by an act of treason? Was the change Musharraf made by overthrowing an elected government for the better? How can one ignore the consensus that there are noknights in shining armour amongst the veteran political gladiators? Besides, slogans like anythingother-than-this relieve the challengers of their obligation to spell out their programmes for change.

The political parties vying for power will dowell by the country and by themselves if, instead of relying on mottos and catchphrases of various sorts, they engaged the people in a serious debate on the whys and hows of securing, say, better economic management, reduction if not eradication of poverty, guarantees of basic right to life, liberty and security, satisfaction of basic needs, uplift of the rural population, gender justice and the rights and freedoms of the religious minorities and the less numerous Muslim sects.

Some attention should also be paid to the role of the media that is now equated with public opinion as a key player in politics. By now it has elevated itself as the strongest actor among potential coup-makers. It has taken off from the point agitational politics ends.

This is not unexpected in a country where media, especially the electronic component, has expanded exponentially without having the time and resources for qualitative improvement and intellectual refinement. By and by things should get better. For the moment, however, politicians fuelling media militancy and extremism should be forewarned that they too will have to face the same media if and when they gain power.

In other words, the rules of the democratic game and the code of ethics should not be read out to politicians in power only; all other actors in the ongoing free-for-all should be made to honour them. Only then will democracy be back on the rails.