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No wrong turn now

February 07, 2013

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IT is time the pernicious idea of giving a few years’ contract to some caretakers to clean up Pakistan’s rotten-egg politics and put the affairs of the state in order was buried as deep as possible.

Such ideas have been spewed every now and then by armchair cynics whose antipathy to democratic governance is incurable. Of late, however, they have been gaining currency in quarters that enjoy a certain credit for seriousness. And, of course, there are quite a few jaded actors who are always keen to assume the role of counsel to the luckless people of this country.

For instance, the former president-general Pervez Musharraf. After lamenting General Kayani’s failure to do what he would have done the moment Maulana Qadri’s caravan arrived in Islamabad, he has suggested the formation of a transitional regime backed by the army and the judiciary for three years. The fact that a greater part of the media ignored his press conference perhaps does not imply rejection of the prescription as much as lack of faith in the self-appointed healer.

A more detailed proposal for an operation to secure Pakistan from the clutches of democracy has been offered by Lieutenant General (retd) Shahid Aziz, a key organiser of the 1999 coup, in his autobiography. Far more sensational than revelations about the Kargil misadventure is his disclosure of the kind of unsavoury goings-on in the defence services. It is impossible to enjoy a devastating exposé of an institution that, with all its faults, Pakistan cannot do without.

After dismissing hopes of better days as a result of elections as baseless, declaring the present system to be beyond redemption and rejecting any possibility of the system being reformed through an evolutionary process, Lt Gen Aziz proclaims that all democratic systems in the world have become derelict. “Then, our economic and social realities are different, civilisation and culture are different.”

Democracy cannot lead Pakistan to its destiny which, in his words, is: “A self-governing, self-conscious, honourable and progressive Islamic state that can guarantee justice, equal social rights to all and the protection of dignity, in which every citizen could live in peace and we become a model system for the world.”

The romantics in all camps — red, green or any other colour — will find little wrong with this generic formula. (The leftists might let the expression ‘Islamic state’ pass if it can defy its conceptual pull and deliver all that is promised.) But this plan will start dissolving into thin air the moment one asks whether the ideal of social equality applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, whether the landless peasant will have as much dignity as a feudal, and whether power in this self-governing state will be wielded by a majority or by a small group of pious men only.

What is Lt Gen Aziz’s plan to realise this destiny? An organised people’s movement will capture the streets and stay firmly there, and the government will fall. Military rule will be acceptable neither to the people nor to the military. The Supreme Court should give powers to a revolutionary council which should negotiate (its mandate?) with the military. After the formation of a transitional government under the revolutionary council a new system (constitution?) should be established. After elections under this system a new government should be formed. The military should back this entire change without interfering with the process. How very simple!

There is reason to believe that the two former generals’ ideas about winding up the democratic experiment are shared by some pressure lobbies. There are people who have not stopped loving the magic of coup-makers. The ingredients of this save-Pakistan masala can be found in the rhetoric of Pakistani and Arab military ‘revolutionaries’.

The trouble is that no attempt to cure an imperfect democracy with a dose of authoritarianism has worked anywhere. Indeed, it has nearly always left the patient worse off than before.

References are made to the Bangladesh experiment of army-backed caretakers’ attempts to deal with politicians’ aberrations. Are Bangladesh’s governance and politics any different from what they were before the caretakers’ extended regime?

Why should one look at Bangladesh’s travails when Pakistan itself offers several instances of the failure of extra-democratic interventions? Recall Ayub Khan’s rhetoric. After subjecting politicians to a barrage of calumny, much of it exaggerated, he dismissed democracy as incompatible with Pakistani people’s genius, gave a veneer of basic democracy to an edifice of dictatorship, and appropriated to himself the right to issue a constitution under his sole signature. What did we get? After a decade of so-called stability the country was dismembered.

The other self-styled messiahs — Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq, Pervez Musharraf — did no better. The people are still paying for their costly experiments with the polity. All of them captured power as caretakers and posed as saviours of democracy.

The worst part of the disservice done by these dictators is that they condemned the people to be ruled by inefficient and self-serving masters. By banning politics they achieved two horrible results. On the one hand they enabled the clerics to take the centre stage. On the other, by sending politicians home for five to nine years, they extended these politicians’ careers. Had normal political activity been allowed political parties would have acquired maturity and new leaders would have replaced the discredited ones. Do we want to repeat this expensive farce? The only safe way to get rid of bad politicians is through open voting.

One often hears the argument that the people have a right to overthrow bad rulers through street power. Haven’t we failed in such efforts? The street agitations of 1968-69 and 1977 only paved the way for takeovers by the army. Street agitation without the guidance of a well-knit, democratic organisation will only create anarchy and invite anti-democratic elements to grab power.

Besides, before running behind any Pied Piper the people should try to ascertain whether he is at all in a position to deliver on his rosy promises. All political organisations and services are guided by their class interest. There is little wisdom in expecting religious parties to establish democracy or capitalists to install labour in power.

The cause of the people will not be served by another deviation from the democratic path. Let’s move on to elections. These elections are unlikely to throw up ideal rulers but the chances of securing a somewhat better form of democracy are today better than ever. Public opinion will not allow the election winner to trifle with law and democratic norms as has been the case hitherto. Nothing will be gained by avoiding going through the mill of democratic evolution because that is the only way to keep alive the dream of the people’s accession to power.