Feb 28, 2009

A collective death wish?

By Ghazi Salahuddin
Many of us had seen this coming but the aftermath of the Supreme Court disqualification of the Sharif brothers and the imposition of governor's rule in Punjab is still too fearful to contemplate with any sense of equanimity. And the pity is that this explosive distraction in our lives has come at a time when there is so much else that this country should earnestly be doing to warrant its well-being and even survival. Do we, collectively, suffer from some kind of a death wish?Almost one year after the induction of the present government, what really have we achieved in terms of an impact on the lives of the ordinary people? Instead, one great resource that we had at this time one year ago – hope – has not only been thrown away but has been replaced with dark misgivings about the future. There is even an apprehension that the present drift could lead to bloodshed and anarchy. Our people, already afflicted with numerous deprivations, have now to cope with the awesome emotional burden of extreme uncertainty. One doctrine of necessity in such circumstances is their yearning for some order and peace. In 'Democracy in America', Alex de Tocqueville, so long ago, wrote about what happens to a people beset with anxiety: "The taste for public tranquillity then becomes a blind passion, and the citizens are liable to conceive a most inordinate devotion to order". What this means is very obvious. Swat is also an example, where the government's apparent surrender is welcomed by the locals for the sake of peace. If there is hope, people will be willing to wade through any dark patch and suffer hardships. In fact, hope in the future is the seed for change, including revolutionary change. How the hope that the lawyers' movement had cultivated in our hearts was brutally suppressed is the real tragedy of our present crisis. We had initially expected to gain, as the outcome of a movement that was also a celebration of the freedom of the media and the involvement of the civil society, a shift in our public affairs towards morality and principles. In that sense, the crisis of Pakistan is not merely political or economic. In its essence, it is moral and social. We need justice and fair play. Politicians anywhere are viewed with some suspicion but they cannot survive without building a measure of trust and credibility in the eyes of the people. We know how any revelation of a serious misdemeanour or wrongdoing on the part of politicians and public officials can destroy their career in any respectable democracy. Our democracy, in spite of the lessons that we should learn from repeated military interventions, is refusing to grow. Every time an election is held and civilian rule is introduced, there is expectation that a new beginning will be possible. Last year, the stage was set for such a new beginning. But a number of fateful deviations – and our essential lack of freedom – has led us to more of the same in a vicious replay of the nineties. Hence, look at where we have arrived as the month of March, with its proverbial intimations of disorder, begins. We need not have waited for the ides of March. Incidentally, this reference, with its sense of foreboding, is from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar". It would be instructive for us to read it again, if only to understand how the Roman mobs had swayed the events in an ancient time. Ah, but we seem to be still living in ancient times. Talking about hope, and about trust and morality, will be totally out of place in the midst of developments that have followed the events of Wednesday. If horse-trading – the lota business – has been the most sinful and detestable business in our politics, a high percentage increase in this exercise has been promised by the announcement of President Asif Ali Zardari that the next chief minister of Punjab would be from the Pakistan People's Party. Where are the numbers, for God's sake? At the outset, I said that this upheaval has distracted our attention from some very crucial issues. Our present struggle against religious extremism comes readily to mind. Our need for good governance, something akin to life-saving drugs for a patient lying in intensive care, is critical. Look at how the shuffling of the bureaucratic cards in the provincial administration has played havoc with the simple task of running the administration on a day to day basis. In a larger context, vital sectors like education and health have to be neglected. At the same time that there is this impression of hectic activity on the streets and in the corridors of power, we are in effect standing still. The US-Pakistan-Afghanistan talks in Washington, constituting a part in the American review of its policy towards this region, have just ended. It was not a good sign for the present political crisis in our country to overlap with these deliberations. We can imagine what picture of Pakistan will have emerged in these talks. Or was this just another footnote in the formulations that have been made about Pakistan being the most dangerous country in the world? According to published reports, US lawmakers, think-tank experts and officials have warned that Pakistan is on the verge of an economic meltdown and a possible political disintegration. One wonders how Richard Holbrooke's professorial mind would cope with all this confusion and complexity. The US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan had made his visit to Pakistan prior to the talks in Washington to "listen and learn the ground realities in this critically important country". He may still have a lot to learn about how we run our country in times of grave emergencies. It is not easy to predict how this confrontation between the Nawaz League and the Zardari PPP will evolve in the immediate context and how it will conclude. As I said, today is only the first day of March and the Long March of the lawyers is less than two weeks away. Perhaps it was to subvert the lawyers' protest that Zardari conceived of this grand plan to remove a government that would have supported the lawyers. With the governor's rule in place, the lawyers would confront an adversary in the main arena of their struggle. But many things can happen between now and the launching of the Long March. Meanwhile, the entire edifice of justice seems to have crumbled. We have a tragic history of how judgments made in our higher courts, usually in the service of the rulers of the time, have led us into wilderness. Where will the present crisis take us? Unfortunately, we don't know where we are going.

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