Poster play

160713-pakistani-poster-By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributor NO matter how we love him, our COAS is no poster boy. For one thing, the face as displayed on the July poster comes out rather reminiscent of Saddam—and that is not the right kind of resonance whether the pitch be civil, military or sufiyana.

There was as good as no collective popular reaction to the sentiment the poster so ardently expressed. The ISPR issued a brusque statement of dissociation. The media, however, soldiered on. We the people were soon in possession of the name of the poster-pasting party, said to be duly registered with the ECP more than a year ago. A political party rooting for Bonapartism is the kind of nonsense that only our democratic climate can provide.

In a cute inversion of the King’s party process so dear to our military dictators, the thitherto unheard of political party was cherry-picking generals! Alternate medicinal politicians like Mustafa Kemal (now there’s a name with resonance) and Imran Khan have debuted but not been sell-outs at the box office. Were entrepreneurs with a mind to surfing Pakistan’s Panama-leaked political waters, hopefully floating a classic star-studded khaki-colour brand? Political theorists and practitioners came up with all kinds of interpretations and counter interpretations as to the motivational glue behind the poster-paste.

The PPP stood out (it always does, even though the PTI boasts more seats) among those opining the incumbent PML-N was responsible. The rationale being that the posters stymie opposition: anyone who embarrasses the government may now be stigmatised as endangering democracy.  The PTI chairman observed fairly enough, that the PML-N’s attitude and performance drove people into desperate alternatives. And when the coup against Erdogan was frustrated by people power, he smugly pointed out that would not be forthcoming locally, where people would more likely celebrate and distribute sweets. He was on safe ground: there is a precedent.

He ignored the fact that people later welcomed back the exiled. So narrowly focused are the PTI’s formidable cohorts on the goal of Go-Nawaz-go that they lose out on both foresight and hindsight. We have had good dictators and good civil prime ministers: and the very same good dictator (think Ayub if Musharraf is too topical) and very same good civil prime minister (think Z.A. Bhutto) turned bad on the job. Empirically, we have found the process of dislodging toxic dictators much more debilitating. The posters have been removed, the sentiment duly chided, but the truth is we in Pakistan habitually juxtapose the civil and military when thinking politics: In the poverty of their parliamentary politics do the oppositional party chairpersons (who function like the absolute monarchs they accuse the PM of being) hope to fine tune the degree and content of military intervention? It is not that much beyond the degree of nationally demonstrated democratic folly– We hailed General Zia as a neutral guarantor of elections in 90 days.

The handling of PanamaLeaks serves as a metaphor of almost all that is wrong with Pakistan’s democratic practices. The PM brashly and unconvincingly asserted the family’s hands were clean. One allows him the same entitlement to the freedom of loose speech as his critics exercise; but his reluctance to step aside and allow due parliamentary process is inexcusable. Alas, the opposition’s obsessively targeting the PM rather than corruption; and exaggeration of the hazards occasioned by the PM’s genuine if serendipitous sick-leave overseas, showed biases that weakened their cause. Vindictiveness and ambition rather than principle appeared operative. For, financial dodging and fixing is not limited to the spheres, activities and disclosures selected and documented by the PanamaLeaks.

In the case of the 2008 mandate Pakistanis preferred to wait; relying on the natural gradual purgation inherent in adhering to democratic form, however poor democratic practice. Imran Khan, the politically un-apprenticed party chairman so many welcomed into 2013’s parliament, is not ready to extend the current democratic mandate that courtesy. The problem is that his preferred extra-parliamentary oppositional mode obstructs and inhibits the essential process of daily civil administration and functioning. Dharnas seem less and less like harmlessly happy carnivals. People crave normal routine as well as amelioration of their state; and they now realize there is no guaranteeing that desired amelioration simply by having Nawaz gone. Who or what replaces him and how? The poster sentiment evidently lacks traction; although putsches do not require yeas and nays.

The point to grasp is that there are no uncompounded yeas or nays: Political wisdom and national survival lie in shunning confrontational showdowns—not just in terms of the civil and military choice; but also in terms of intra and inter party and federal and provincial supremacies and interests.

Such are our populous country’s demographics that any element can command a demonstrably disturbing presence. And such has been the selective arming and disarming of party militants and activists, both officially and unofficially, that the potential for bloody violence is yet to be nullified. Competing grabs for political power and its misuse—not least by the deep state– for party promotion and self-enrichment; with public service a mere façade, brought Karachi to dire straits and framed urban and rural Sindh’s polarities. It is folly to repeat that pattern in political power play in Punjab, FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan. It is still greater folly to approach issues like Kashmiri self-determination; the management and orientations in Pakistan’s foreign policy; the pursuit of rational compromises in common council interests; and the imperatives of a census; as fodder for political infighting and one-upmanship.

And possibly the greatest folly lies in thinking having the PM of the moment go, and an X or Y or Z of “our” party’s preference in that chair, is more remedial than working towards a democratic state where the judiciary and the legislature check and balance the executive without paralyzing or convulsing the system.