Amazed in the maze

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani   

Pakistan’s democratic advances and retreats are usually perceived in terms of a tussle between power-belts: a civilian establishment comprised of what– post lateral-entry– we may no longer justly call mandarins, enabled by and facilitating administration and policy for an electorally empowered party leadership: now called chors and dakkus. (Party activists, dissidents, and turncoats of lesser stature we could soon be calling raillu kattas.)  In the scales for charge of the governmental process is the military establishment.

We still term it the khakis. Notwithstanding the fact that the last military coup was essentially a day-long airborne drama, those clad in blue and white do not emerge as coup-Caesars. Perhaps what really matters is what you have on the ground — or the ground realities of the political field.  What are these and who determines them? Supposedly in the electoral democratic process the voters. But who enfranchises and disenfranchises?

Our last military dictator, with a touching faith in education, ruled that your candidate had to be a graduate.  In a subsequent swing of the pendulum not only was that requirement waived, the voting-age was lowered. Results have shown who was electorally best served by the youth-bulge. Incidentally, youths make good foot soldiers; and street-power has oft stymied administration or governance of any sort (good or bad) adding impetus to pendulum-swings.

Presently, some would include a newly-galvanized institutional entrant: the judicial. It is shedding camouflage as mere litmus in a test of political legitimacy versus political necessity and making suo motu institutional expansion of its civil and political scope and thereby space. Then occasionally some officially unquestionable judgments offend those judged within both the civil and military establishments. The last CJP gained popular grassroot renown as a benevolent ‘CJ Uncle’ if not quite an extra-parliamentary Mr Fixit. Much influential judicial utterance and socio-political comment transpires outside the courtroom in formal address and informal speech and becomes widely publicized grist for social media.   

In his most recent exit, Nawaz Sharif was not dealt a military coup-riddance the judiciary had to pronounce on. Nor did he resign or face the challenge of a vote of confidence in the House after PanamaLeaks/Gate. He was disqualified by a legal process, adjudged as failing in usefully un-delineated constitutional requisites of being sadiq and amin (literally translatable as true and trustworthy). Of course, he was appearing before courts and commissions of inquiry and accountability, and that tortuous judicial process lingers on.

Disconcertingly, although he was stigmatized and disqualified his party is still not satisfyingly routed. One could even argue parliamentary process gained strength in electing a new leader of the House and maintaining continuity. The new PM (who, like many prominent politicians, is on a fallback chor list) led the party to a dignified completion of the mandate. And then duly conducted elections gave Imran Khan’s PTI the mandate. It is coalitional, and so that party’s PM is subject to pressures from allies within parliament, and routinely needs establishment goodwill far more than other more autonomous parliamentary parties did/do. From the perspective of a civil-military establishment power tussle, such vulnerability ensures malleability and makes the PTI a good choice for those who seek superimpositions in the unguided civil democratic process.

The popularity and electoral relevance rather than collapse of what used to be Pakistan’s two mainstream political parties is proving tiresomely problematic for competitors and other power-belts. Thus, the PSP bid to gain the MQM constituencies and the GDA bid to replace the PPP proved inadequate. And that newly installed blue-eyed kid on the federal block, the PTI, may be losing rather than gaining civil political space. This scarcely suits the military establishment, which as we are often told is on the same page as the present incumbents.

Every voter, no matter which institution they may serve, is entitled to a personal political choice. But for good governance and a smooth administrative process, disappointed voters need to honour a democratic majority verdict. Institutions have shown they can upend it.  This is not the case at present. What is happening though, is that the federation’s provincial temper is being fragmented to a degree that borders on the implosive.

This is becoming so clear that the predominant question now is almost but this: What power-belt directly or through its surrogates can best hold the country together? Behind this is a muted question: Is comprehensive political failure being recklessly precipitated because of an inhering civil-military power-belt tussle whose proponents exploit grievances, and ambitions? Or is internal menace being fomented and crystallized by elements hostile to Muslim nuclear power and thence the existing Pakistan matrix?

Citizens are bound to be affected by the political approach to considering these vital questions.

Despite holding the governmental reins, the PTI is showing itself unable to grow out of or move beyond personal insult and vindictiveness both inside and outside parliament. The PML-N and the PPP must resist the temptation to give a faltering PTI government a dose of its own short-sighted if triumphant toxic scheming oppositional medicine. It is vital to help the electorate unlearn the inflammatory populist narrative of hate and rage and the tactics of paralytic obstructionism that the PTI injected into the democratic mainstream: Street power is an index the PPP and PML-N are being taunted into demonstrating they still possess.  We cannot afford the appearance of chaos. A mature democratic opposition must challenge fearlessly where necessary as well as formulate and voice constructive policy alternatives.  Otherwise, Pakistan itself may be a casualty of totalitarian outreach: external or internal.