Mar 19, 2009

Clouds in the silver lining

With the historic restoration of all deposed judges, Pakistan has moved towards a stronger judiciary, stronger civil society and a stronger media. The valiant role played by the bar is momentous.
The national euphoria, for the most part, is therefore justified. Yet several features of the events, especially during the final crescendo, of the struggle are cause for serious concern.
In the run-up to March 16, the possible role of the army was discussed at length. The rumour mill was in full swing. Serious papers speculated about Kakar solutions and about the possibility of the army muscling out the president. Some whispered about a Bangladesh solution. Eventually, on the penultimate day, the army chief intervened to persuade the president and the prime minister to resolve matters.
Gen Kayani has earned laurels, it appears, for this role. His taciturn visage graced the front page of a major national paper, flanked by that of the relieved prime minister and the revived chief justice. Many commentators have been effusive in their praise. According to one, ‘the role played by the army chief guaranteed the continuation of democracy in the country’. Another article notes that the army is ‘the ultimate protector of the external and internal security fronts’. Yet another analyst commends “the nuanced and calibrated approach” of the army chief.
Such counselling (or interference) by the army is extremely regrettable — and unwarranted. One party and its partners, constitutionally elected and recognised as such, wanted to use the levers of the state to thwart an agitation. Another party and its partners wanted to use the levers of the street to drive home a legitimate point.
Both were fighting for a share of the public mind — what political parties are supposed to do. If things would not have been resolved, as appeared to be the case, there would have been a stand-off. It would have ended with either forced dispersion, or a compromise, or a mixture of the two.
What was so undemocratic — or indeed apocalyptic — about that? In any case, what grounds, if ever any, can be made out for the army playing a productive role in national politics?
A similarly adjudicating role also appears to have been played by the United States. As a concerned state with stakes in Pakistan’s stability, it has the right to be interested in Pakistan’s affairs. But, as has been the case in the past and appears to be the case now, this interest, often exercised through powerful clients, can amount to much more than that. Again, this is regrettable.
The Charter of Democracy categorically stated that no party would ask for any interference by the third party. And indeed, in this case, no one asked, at least publicly, for any assistance. But neither did the agitating parties explicitly ask all the third forces to refrain from any role, overt or covert. Today, at least, the PML-N should openly criticise the role played by the army chief, even if it was helpful to its cause. This is unlikely to happen, thus constituting an implicit endorsement. Very disappointing indeed.
The plunging popularity of the PPP, its growing fissures, and its looming leadership crisis are also major causes for concern. The way things are going, it appears that the next elections would see the PPP, that is at the moment the only party with national appeal, reduced to interior Sindh. With the MQM holding on to urban Sindh, the PML-N further consolidating in Punjab, the Frontier divided between the JUI-F and the ANP, and Balochistan between the usual sardars, Pakistan, for the first time, would be left with no major federating political party.
This would be a colossal national loss. The rifts within the PPP — resignations by senior figures during the crisis and the clear difference of opinion at the top — are also likely to deepen, further weakening the party’s hold on the federal imagination. Strains on federalism bubbled above the surface during the final days of the movement. Some parties alleged provincialism. While lawyers participated from all over the nation, it was only in Punjab that the cause of the deposed judges, championed by the PML-N, caught the public imagination. Was it the case of Punjab throwing its weight around? Perhaps not. Is it likely that some opponents of the PML-N are likely to feel aggrieved on this count? Perhaps yes.
Expectations from the revived chief justice (and the judiciary) have also become extremely high — and the public is likely to be disappointed. The weighty constitutional and political disputes of the state — the Sharif disqualification case, the NRO, the PCO judges, validity of Gen Musharraf’s actions, the missing persons’ case are some obvious example — are likely to generate intense debate, partisanship and criticism, whatever the final decisions of the reconstituted Supreme Court.
The hopes that somehow now the judiciary shall invariably be able to save parliament from a marauding Bonaparte are also exaggerated. Worse, day to day experiences of ordinary citizens with the judiciary are likely to remain poor. All these features reveal structural flaws in Pakistani politics. Some — the army role, the US intrusiveness, and political immaturity — are old unfortunate traits. Everyone naively hoped that these had gone away in the euphoria of the 2008 elections. But structural flaws do not disappear with the heady enthusiasm of weeks. Others — the weakening PPP and the likely disillusionment with the last great hope of the judiciary — are new elements. In combination with a weak economy and the difficult war on terror, these features constitute Herculean challenges that are likely to test the mettle of any statesman.
Does this mean doom? Not necessarily. But it does mean that the ride is going to be rocky for a long time to come. Mountains of patience, perseverance, compromise and restraint would be needed to stay the course of democracy, justice and federalism — guaranteed by the vigilance and wisdom of ordinary citizens, civil society, the media, the judiciary and the political parties. Not the army.

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