Army and ISI for once are not to blame. Their hands full of other things, they are not about to move in. It is tough enough handling the United States, Afghanistan and our Taliban wars. Guardians of the holy flame are in no position to handle the wrecking of democracy.
Yet there is a threat to democracy, and let us not close our eyes to it. But it comes from within the confines of the constitutional order. The famous trichotomy of powers is just not working. Those who should be defending democracy are helping undermine it. The old Bonapartism with which we are so familiar has been replaced with something else.
The PPP’s incompetence is a given and let us not waste too much breath on it. But who said democracy guarantees competence? The only thing it guarantees is the chance to roll the dice and change the layout of the gaming table. That chance is ours if we only show a bit of patience and wait for the elections.
Four and a half years of the present order are already over. Why can’t we wait for another six months? This year we have endured the worst loadshedding in living memory. But it has passed and, with luck, the monsoon rains will come, breaking the back of the hot summer and bringing a respite into the air. As all things pass, the next six months too will pass. Let the consolation of Odysseus be our consolation: “Patience, stout heart, thou hast endured much worse than this.”
Let us not shy away from a fundamental truth. Even a Zardari-led democracy is better than no democracy. It is certainly much better than anything gifted by our military saviors; the quartet whose share in ruining Pakistan and bringing it to its present pass is greater than anyone else’s.
A longish caretaker government? That will be the death of us, the last nail in our coffin. The Ayub, Zia and Musharraf regimes – all run by technocrats. When will we learn anything from our history?
Yes, this may be the most corrupt government on the planet, Zardari the living incarnation of darkness and evil. All this and more for argument’s sake we can assume. But if we only give democracy a little breathing space, if for the first time since Pakistan’s creation we allow a democratically-elected government to complete its term and hold elections, and await the verdict of the Pakistani electorate – whom we never tire of proclaiming the first sovereign of all – that, and no other shortcut, will be the best way, perhaps the only way, to cleanse the stables and move on.
Corruption is not unique to Pakistan. It adds color to every political landscape. Gloria Arroyo in the Philippines is being held accountable for her misdeeds after having left the presidency. Nicholas Sarkozy in France is facing judicial charges – after leaving the presidency. Zardari’s Swiss accounts may involve serious corruption but, for God’s sake, they are not Pakistan’s foremost problem at the moment. And even if we get exercised by them there will be time enough for a judicial noose round Zardari’s neck once he no longer enjoys presidential immunity. And let’s not forget, corruption does not begin and end at his door. As we keep saying, everyone in this bathhouse is without his clothes.
One prime ministerial victim is enough of a sacrifice at the altar of the rule of law. A second prime minister going the same way will be a blow that our fragile, always threatened, democracy may not be able to withstand. Do we want that?
The suspicion is hard to throw off: the gladiatorial contest we are watching is compelling theatre but it is less and less about the rule of law and more and more about a course of action dictated by an assumed sense of divine mission. What it is resulting in is not the majesty of the law being affirmed but the pillars of the democratic temple, not very strong to begin with, being shaken. To what end? No one knows.
Cheering from the sidelines and therefore contributing to the maelstrom is a holy trinity comprising (1) the legal community, (2) the more rabid sections of the media and (3) political elements whom it is best not to name too directly.
The legal community has a vested interest in judicial hyper-activity. The new-found power of this community – the uncharitable would say its nuisance value – draws strength from judicial activism. The media jihadis who have been predicting the demise of the democratic order these past four years have their own mysterious axes to grind. No medicine known to ordinary pharmacology is a cure for the self-righteousness which seems to drive them the most. But the political elements blindly backing judicial interventionism are missing the bigger picture. They stand to lose the most if this process goes any further and the political wagons are derailed.
The PPP is on a collision course now with the superior judiciary. If any proof of this were needed it is furnished by the new contempt law. But after four and a half years in the saddle this course best suits the PPP. Anything like a longish care-taker set-up it will welcome, that being an opportunity for it to rise once again from the ashes and cast a cloak of oblivion over the corruption and incompetence associated with the Zardari name. It will be time then for the Bilawal and Assefa generation to emerge from the shadows and step into the light. Justice Chaudhry will have gone. Gen Kayani will have gone (hopefully, that is).
The Bhutto-Zardaris will remain. The PPP will remain. If in our context there is one thing impervious to the vicissitudes of time it is the PPP. Call this Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s enduring contribution to the texture of Pakistani politics.
But for the PML-N if there is an opportunity, it lies in the holding of elections on time. Alter this calculus and it stands to lose the most because its high tide will have passed. Delay thus is fatal but delay is prevented only if the political applecart is not upset.
But threatening to upset the applecart is precisely what the present confrontation does. This should make the PML-N rethink two of its current attitudes: the devotional salutes, the Sieg Heils, to the superior judiciary; and the tendency towards parliamentary rowdyism which at times it takes to be a mark of superior politics.
About the first enough said. About the second point, I doubt if the general opinion is that the party covered itself with much glory the way it reacted in the National Assembly to Gilani’s judicial crucifixion. The jeering and catcalls, and the descent into fisticuffs at budget time, would have impressed very few. The jibe given currency by its opponents about being a ‘friendly opposition’ bred a needless complex in the PML-N. It should not have taken it so much to heart.
Politicians already stand lowered in the public eye. Mindless talk shows and
politicians behaving like monkeys have done little to enhance the image of the political class. Self-preservation if nothing else should dictate more responsible behavior.
With elections soon to be upon us, that is if our luck holds and nothing untoward intervenes, we are now entering serious territory. The time for juvenile posturing is over. The PML-N can come to power, or take a shot at coming to power, only if the present order holds and we are saved from further experimentations in the name of fighting corruption or upholding the rule of law. Any derailment, whatever the justification, will push the country back not ten but twenty years.
So let us keep our good intentions in check. The people of Pakistan should know better than anyone else where good intentions so often lead.
The writer is a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a columnist with The News where this article was first published on July 13, 2012.