Feb 27, 2009

Sad days for the country

By Shafqat Mahmood
It is unfolding like the chronicle of a death foretold. The decision to disqualify the Sharif brothers is the beginning of the end of another sad episode of Pakistan’s democracy. It is not as if the army is dying to take over. It has its hands full dousing fires within and maintaining the sanctity of the borders. Nine years of Musharraf have also cooled much of its ardour for civilian rule. But the legendary ability of the political class to self-destruct has begun to create conditions that will pull it in. This is not a rush to judgement. Even a brief look at history bears this out. Bickering in the fifties brought in Ayub. Street warfare in the late seventies gave the nation the delightful Zia-ul-Haq. Political vendetta and institutional clashes brought in Musharraf. Why would it be any different this time?It is not that the political class has not been warned. It is a constant refrain in write-ups and talk shows and interactions large and small. Yet no one cares. It is as if the pleasure of a fight cannot be deferred. The desire for total power cannot be pended. It is the ultimate surge; putting down an adversary, the rush of a kill, the taste of victory. But as Dryden said, victors are by their victories undone. They create a false sense of omnipotence, a kind of overconfidence that screens all dangers. Listening to some of the “victors” since the court verdict is an education. They dismiss offhand the threat of popular reaction. This is strange, because those who come through the political process should fundamentally understand it. Yet, they have developed a huge confidence in instruments of the state.They had fought the same police to a standstill in their street-fighting years. The same state structure had been unable to lure them when they were down. Now they think some strategic arrests and a few banging of heads will stop their adversaries. Also, that the numbers in the Assembly will be made up with the district administration leaning on members. How perceptions change!They don’t realise that this administration is not what it used to be. Years of misuse and tinkering with the structure has reduced its clout. Also, frequent bouts of retribution after regime changes have made it risk-averse. Those who have now been put in the front line are reluctant warriors. They know that times change. They will only go so far. Another change is the power of the electronic media. It is everywhere and, just by picking up visuals, has the ability to fuel the anger already present. It also subliminally exhorts everyone to be a participant rather than stand idly by. This is not deliberate. It is inherent in the situation. And constant coverage creates a profound perception of unrest. This makes the task of creating order harder. Even if the storm currently raging in the streets of Punjab is put down, it will be a brief hiatus. Removing leaders of a major party from the political process is not an ordinary event. It will continue to have consequences. The door has effectively been closed on reconciliation. It is now war, in which some battles will be short, but the conflict will be ongoing. The court verdict on Wednesday is also a sad reflection on the institutions of the state. No one, absolutely no one, believes that the judges acted independently. The Sharifs have openly said that this decision was given on the behest of President Zardari, but they are not alone. Even those who do not have any love for them believe this. What a low point for our judicial system!A few days before the verdict was delivered, I was told on good authority that the Sharifs are going to be disqualified. A statement by the governor, that PPP will soon have its chief minister in Punjab, was also indicative. But I continued to have faith in the higher institutions of the state to behave responsibly. Why, because it was obvious even to the blind that the last thing Pakistan needs at the moment is conflict and unrest. We are going through perhaps the most difficult period of history since 1971. Not only are fires raging all over the NWFP and repercussions of the Mumbai tragedy continue, but also the economy is in severe recession. Industry is in deep trouble, businesses everywhere are hurting and people are losing jobs. Lack of bread and butter is not just a metaphor. At this stage for the court to be so heedless of consequences was beyond me. I therefore downplayed the possibility. This was despite the fact that I knew preparations were afoot in the Governor’s House to take over the administration after the disqualification of the chief minister. Even the names of the people likely to replace senior bureaucrats in Punjab were becoming known. Yet I believed that the court would exercise better judgement. Then some moves made by the prime minister gave hope. He said all the right things and met Shahbaz Sharif to defuse tension. Now it seems like an elaborate ruse. It is as if he knew what was going to happen and just wanted to look good. If he had serious reservations, as he indicated in a phone call to Shahbaz, he should have stood his ground. Because, governor’s rule could not be imposed without his consent. Top administrative changes in the Punjab also required his approval. He seems to have gone along willingly. The only change he made was to get his nominee appointed chief secretary. This was a small price to pay for Zardari. Now all this talk of Gilani coming of age and asserting himself should come to an end. There are going to be tough times ahead. Public order has already been disturbed, and in March the lawyers’ movement gets going. The likelihood is that there will be much greater participation in their march to Islamabad. They will be joined by major and minor political forces and civil society activists. It portends to have much greater substance than before.The administrative strategy will be to stop them wherever they are and not let them come to Islamabad. This will involve arrests and skirmishes all over the province. Normal business will be badly disturbed, if not come to a standstill. A suffering economy will be further affected. Is there anything that can be done?Very little. Some methodology can be found to reverse the court decision but the bad blood created is difficult to defuse. In any case, the lawyers are not going to stop. They want restoration of the pre-Nov 3 judiciary and will not settle for anything less. President Zardari may consider sacrificing Salmaan Taseer to relieve some tension, but it will now be too little too late. The more likely scenario is that he will use the police to create surface order and declare victory. If he is unable to, the entire structure has the potential to crash. This will not just be bad for the PPP or democracy. The country will go down further. Once again, the apex court will have inflicted unacceptable damage on the country.

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