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Wait before you celebrate

November 13, 2012

CELEBRATIONS are always such a relief. They are particularly handy in the case of those who have had few opportunities to boast about the events taking place around them, their own abilities and more than that, about their freedom in shaping these events.

Once upon a time, a few voices saying the country could steer itself out of the times when it was in constant danger of soldierly reforms signified hope.

And if these voices had sustained the committed democrat through all these bumpy years, the current happy chorus predicting the end of martial rule in Pakistan is a treat the assorted, seasonal and permanent democrats, election hopefuls and anti-martial law campaigners have waited for so long.

This is a feast of the hungry, by the hungry, for the hungry. It is explained by the long denial and the ‘newfound consensus and confidence’ that everyone is talking about.

Previously, even the most optimistic anti-military rule analyses would be qualified. The last paragraph would leave room for a patriotic general to sneak in and stay for long. That has changed and just as the chief judge announces that the days when military tanks would decide issues are gone, others join him from all sides with great relish, in some cases their enthusiasm bordering on vengeance.

They talk about the ills of military intervention with a frankness never seen before. By and large the participants are so immersed in the act that they are summarily dismissive of the suggestions that someone else could yet be pressed into playing the reformer’s role in a country where the politicians are still considered to be the least trustworthy of all.

Sadly, the governmental refrain about the supremacy of parliament does not enjoy great support, at least not in proportion to the anti-martial law calls.

For the moment most seem to be content with assuring and reassuring one another that military rule is a thing of the past in this dear homeland of theirs. So difficult has been this goal — one which is deemed to have been achieved according to the ‘national consensus’.

So great is the passion that some of these remarks about the rooting out of the martial law tradition, God forbid, portray a side invigorated by notions of victory daring an old rival to a rematch.

This is not the stuff for the fainthearted. It is certainly not the stuff for those, however small their number, who are not as efficient as others — the majority? — at shrugging off fears accumulated over decades of submission to the ultimate arbiter of power in the country.

Conjecture and speculation, the reference to overriding international influence in deciding what kind of rule suits Pakistan when, has to give way to some more convincing indigenous, durable factors for this fearful view to disappear.

These are all good celebrations hailing the Pakistani people’s confidence about the demise of the military rule option. The real party can, however, wait until freedom from the old interventionist threat has enabled all parts in the machine to function on a reasonably productive level, performing their assigned roles.

When this government began, amid great fanfare about the restoration of democracy, the pronouncement of Pakistan’s democratic future vis-à-vis its army was not as loud as it is now.

The politicians have since quarrelled and fumbled and stumbled. Crime has surged; Karachi and Balochistan are bleeding; extremism has spread. Prices have gone up; corruption is rampant; and the economy is not in good shape. Life and lifestyles have suffered badly. The government has frequently appealed for calm in the name of democracy, but its cries have been lost on an almost brutal media.

Amid all this and with the passage of time, more and more commentators have forecast a martial law-free Pakistan in the future. Could it be that what is described as the worst turns out to be the best example for them to rely on?

The past four years of tough, often weak governance by politicians which threw up plenty of reasons for intervention has strengthened the argument rather than weakened it.

In a very peculiar way, this civilian government’s journey has been quite a remarkable  one towards the realisation of the old Pakistani democracy dream. After all is said, the clinching point often is that if the military did not feel compelled to step in during the so visibly troubled and oft-discredited rule, it is unlikely to resort to martial law anytime in the future.

Not too far away from the confident anti-martial law forecasters, continues a more basic debate which writes off nothing and which provides another reason why the army appears so unlikely or disinclined to think about martial law.

Finding the much-favoured disconnect with past experience a bit difficult to quickly reconcile to, this debate habitually explores the ‘hows and whys’ that appear to make Pakistan’s return to army rule so visibly improbable.

It ultimately develops into a discussion about substance versus form, about who commands and controls and who need not be seen commanding in the presence of an ever-pliable civilian ruler.

There are some obvious local factors that can be credited for the pro-democracy conclusions everybody is drawing in the country, the judiciary and media being the most visible of them. But these are players who have found reason or have been compelled to work overtime and have been accused by some government functionaries of partiality.

In the eyes of many they are the true saviours of the times. But we are talking about freedom from martial law and commitment to popular rule here. Consequently, our next saviours have to come from among those chosen by the people’s vote. That is the dawn the freedoms we are partying about now must lead us to.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.