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Let us, for once, not save Pakistan

February 05, 2013


Illustration by Tahir Mehdi.
-Illustration by Tahir Mehdi.

Oh my God, what a thriller it was! We just turned back from the brink - a looming disaster in freezing cold, breathtaking moments and all other anxieties of a cliff hanger or shall I say, those of a last-ball-finish T20. But it was worth it as at the end Pakistan was saved. Maybe in the process Pakistan has also broken the record for 'the most saved State'. We will have to consult Chief Minister Punjab to confirm this since he has recently been in touch with the guys at Guinness Book of Records.

But if you take my word, I have witnessed the spectacle of Pakistan being saved - just in the nick of time - more often than I have celebrated my birthdays. Yet, we are being told that the poor country might need one (or more) heroic acts of saving before it goes to polls sometime in May. So behold, and hold tightly the remote, remain glued to the screens of your choice for fun-filled weeks ahead.

Most of the excitement is caused by the State of Pakistan when it yells 'help' at the top of its voice. It reverberates in the length and breadth of the country and keeps resonating unless a macho savior, mostly hailing from central Punjab, reaches the scene. He mostly catches the elected government in a rather obscene condition and just about to dishonor the state. So, what is it between the two that they never pull along?

In theory, the government is an organisation of people that makes laws, policies and rules and then runs day to day affairs of a country while the state is a concept, an idea, about what makes a country, who should govern it and in what manner and that is written down in the country's constitution. So the state is the idea and the government its manifestation. It is like the game of cricket is the state and a match the government. The game is a set of rules about how a match should be played and it remains an abstract concept unless allowed to manifest itself in a match.

In a democracy, both the state and the government are products of the same institution - the elected parliament, the voice of the people. It makes sense for the players to define and agree to the rules and then play by them. Then why shall the twain, the state and the government, antagonise? In fact, in most countries they don't.  The fight, over there, is between the party in government and those out of it and they differ over how best to run the country and not generally on whether and how the democracy should be allowed to run. In Pakistan however, the state is permanently at war with the government - except when it is an unelected one.

When the authoritarian military forms the government, it becomes a seamless one with the state. Take for example, General Zia. He was the head of the government of Pakistan and also enjoyed the authority to do whatever he wished to with the constitution. He had once said 'the constitution is a mere piece of paper'. Let me tell you that he mastered the art of origami so he could fold, trim or trash that piece of paper to suit the requirements of his government; there was no conflict between the state and the government.

General Ayub who preceded Zia did not possess origami skills so when he grabbed the government, he shot the constitution point blank, appointed a commission to rewrite for him another brand new one, with the condition that it shall define the acts of his government as the law, and his wishes as the articles of constitution; so, once again, there was oneness in the state and the government. The last of these golden eras of state-government harmony ended in 2008 when General President Musharraf lost both of his titles. Our great hero too had the powers to use the constitution as a scrap book and carve a state to suit his government.

So they define the game and then play the match and win it. We had no democratically-agreed constitution for 26 years after independence. The unelected civil and military bureaucracy defined the state for us during that period, when finally an elected parliament could draw the features of the state - the 1973 constitution - it was disfigured beyond recognition by the military within a few years and without ever allowing the people to form and run a government under it. Democratic governments in this country have been broadcasted as advertisement breaks between two military regimes and even for these short interludes they were able to ensure that the parliament did not dare to redefine the state.

Consider just one act of distortion - Article 58 (2) b - that the military government of General Zia had inserted in the 1973 constitution, empowering the president to dismiss an elected parliament at will. This was used by 'the state' to save itself from the excesses of four successive governments elected by the people. When finally a government secured the numbers to change this unfair rule, it was overturned by the next military 'revolution' in 1999. The General brought back the rule, besides adding more distortions.

The last elections (2008) were held under the same distorted rules but the elected government was able to make some changes about how the game will be played in future. For example, it worked out acceptable solutions to the problem of appointment of Chief Election Commissioner and the caretaker prime minister. So the coming elections are the first time in our 65-year history when the match will be played by the rules agreed to by the playing parties, the representatives of the people, and not set for them by the unrepresentative civil or military bureaucracy.

We can expect that the next government will be able to make more advances in defining a state that does not find oneness with unelected authoritarian regimes. Is that what is making 'the State of Pakistan' shout help again? Let us hold back our machos and let the hoax pass unheeded. The state that the authoritarian military rulers had defined to suit their interests is bound to die. Let us not save it and let democracy define a new State of Pakistan, solely for its people.


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.