Democratic attempts

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

WIELDERS of political power and the executive and administrative authority accompanying office are remembered for the ambience of life under their rule as well as the formative sometimes indelible imprints they leave on public consciousness and civic discourse and behaviour.  When leaders or their policies are controversial their impact can be polarizing, even destructive. But if controversial leaders are within themselves essentially tolerant and open-minded – whether or not society is hidebound – these differences of opinion stimulate debate and communication which are the indispensables of a healthy, vital, thinking society.

            So what to do when ugly differences emerge and leadership lacks the will or skill to handle conflict with good sense? Us Pakistanis have seen our leaders resort to oppression and suppression; and the consequences both of resistance and lack of resistance.

            At present are we individually able to distance ourselves from our own strong personal preferences and seek a collective national perspective and objectivity? Or, rather, are we ready fodder for the kind of puny leaders who depend on negative populism to gain a following? Can we distinguish between identifying and treating justified and real provincial and ethnic grievances from a mere political exploitative reiteration of these that exacerbates rather than heals?

Perhaps the most distressing thing is that the sober-minded among us are turning apolitical. This attitude of detachment is but camouflage for defeat and despair: For what alternative is there to civil democratic process? Even the most authoritarian amongst us, the snobbiest of oligarchs, can only endorse Bonapartism as a panacea for Bonaparte himself, not his domain. The social after-effects of medicinal military intervention can have a toxic fallout that far exceeds the vices of civil government. Our experience has shown that a Bonaparte’s clan does not remain immune to the temptations of wielding political and administrative power in a civic context.

             Those who cling to democratic commitment and form in a quest for more and more of its substance, argue that democratic government is a self-correcting form which process we repeatedly arrest by intervention. They contend that Musharraf’s NRO which has become a term of abuse in the time of the PTI was a positive compromise in that it allowed a non-traumatic unfettered resumption of the civil political process.

Earlier, Benazir’s post-Zia compromises with the troika fostered a diminution of the concept and its actualities through parliamentary process and review. Nawaz Sharif, still taunted as the favoured bloom of General Zia’s military planthouse, asserted his coming of civil democratic independence in dismissing more than one COAS. But it was his misuse of his two-thirds majority, culminating in an attempted constitutional amendment that would have given him the kind of powers Imran Khan would also like to have, which underwrote his rejection by a democratically minded society. Interestingly, the popular revulsion to a single party’s bullying later prompted the parliamentary redux of General Zia’s favourite amendment: People supported civil dismissal of democratic deviation rather than its militarized correction.

In those much badmouthed post-Musharraf years of civil democracy, the alternation between PMLN and PPP was not a meaningless ping-pong. Exile had shown the two mainstream rivals realize they needed to respect a ‘charter of democracy’. We saw the focus shifting to electoral transparency, and a growing recognition that political and civil accountability could not be used as a political weapon without distorting the entire social fabric. The PMLN could not, despite a crushing mandate, venture in its second term to trespass on provincial grounds the way the PTI comfortably does today: Had perhaps the two-party system begun to gain too much democratic vitality for the judicial and military arms of the State? Coalitional government are easier to manipulate. The emergence of the PTI catered to that need for a military establishment that feels a need to monitor civil democracy.

‘Incidents’ like the Abbotabad takeaway of Osama Bin Laden and Salala could not but occasion a loss of military face in the civil political context. A strategic retreat from direct active civil and political control was inevitable. The top brass may or may not have found an extensor in Imran Khan. Political wannabees provide the kind of malleable national electoral element that the likes of autonomously ‘electables’ as visible within the ranks of the GDA;  PML(Q); BAP will never be. The switch from being king’s men to kingmakers is too easy for them. It is not entirely fantastical to think that Imran was selected to be elected. How much help he may have been given and why history may show – or leave uncertain.

Despite dharnas at Faizabad, calls of civil disobedience, the PTI’s politicking against Nawaz Sharif’s government did not gain the kind of mass support that the PNA movement had against Bhutto.  However, sustained international publicity of fiscal malfeasance in Pakistan’s democratic leadership (among other disobliging Third World leaders or focal targets) did what “doing more” had done for Pakistan’s national military leaders.  The constitutional provision of “sadiq and ameen” standing – an interpretive factor that could net any and every one of us – did the job dilatory courts had yet to do.  Even so, the PMLN lasted out its much-harassed tenure to call for – and abide by – the 2018 electoral verdict.

But come 2021, the problem is that Imran Khan et al have established their inability to move from electoral campaign fervour into the staid routine of elected formal governance. It is simply failing to deliver on its mandate. At ease perhaps only on the campaign trail, it is now focused on innovation for the conduct and logistics of the next electoral process. 

Has it rivals? President Zardari’s PPP has demonstrated its ability both to go along with the military or outface and outwit it. The PML-N is depicted as riven by apparently conflicting narratives of negotiate and accommodate vs exclude and contain military trespass into managing and controlling civil politics. Ironically enough, given the unexpected fidelity of the votebank through the party’s adversity, come national elections the perceived duality could well prove supplementary rather than divisive!

But meanwhile, what about the problems of daily life and fending off bad neighbours? If the system is verging to chaos the next intelligent call may be for systemic change; and interim caretakers with claims to more wisdom than lesser citizens to devise and then oversee it. If the scenario materializes, will people take it lying down, exhaling a collective sigh of relief?

Even more depends on the Opposition inside and outside parliament than on the incumbents. It is their leadership’s degree of democratic commitment and competence that will determine our democratic future, for as matters stand the incumbents show as wanting.