Mar 25, 2009
Curious case of Pakistani politics
BEFORE Monday, March 16, I, a PPP voter, had had a very confusing week which was spent cheering on a movement aimed against a government that I had voted for. I cheered a movement that was supported by a right-wing party that I could never imagine voting for. I saw the party I had voted for — because of its democratic credentials — operate like a military dictatorship. I saw the president, a leader of the most popular party in the country, barricade himself behind containers meant to keep his own citizens at bay. In my condemnation of the president, I saw myself echo words that have also been used by the PML-Q, a party that I never imagined would share even the smallest part of my vernacular. I watched a marginalised political leader, one who not only attacked the Supreme Court during his time in power but also scared most democrats by his attempts to impose Sharia during his tenure, emerge as a champion of democracy through non-violent means, winning a victory simply by marching forth and drawing people as he went. And the morning after, I saw lawyers who had just won a fantastic victory against the PPP government raise slogans of ‘Jiye Bhutto.’ Politics in Pakistan is at best confusing.Through all this I noticed that there are many who like to keep their politics simple, without expending too much energy on sifting right from wrong. These include those who decided that being a PPP voter and supporter must necessarily translate into opposing the long march. These also include those who decided that no matter what the issue, political leaders on the other side of the spectrum must necessarily be opposed. For them, Nawaz Sharif’s political conservativeness and Iftikhar Chaudhry’s perceived lack of sharpness was enough reason to oppose the long march and the lawyers’ movement, and support governor’s rule in Punjab. Unfortunately, Pakistan has never allowed us to keep our politics so simple.The week before last demonstrates well why this is the case. Why did I, a PPP voter, cheer when Prime Minister Gilani announced a capitulation to the demands of the long marchers? The answer lies in three simple facts. First, the institutions of state and their sanctity are far more important than the personalities that occupy them. There is a tradition in political discussions in Pakistan to concentrate on personalities rather than the institutions they represent. Therefore, the fact that Iftikhar Chaudhry has a less than electric personality, or that he may have been politicised, was enough reason for most thinking liberals to insist that he should not be restored. These discussions missed a simple fact. By dismissing 60 judges along with the chief justice, Musharraf had set an extremely dangerous precedent. Had we as a nation allowed these judges to remain dismissed, we would have been guilty of setting an even more dangerous precedent.If the judiciary as an institution was to be ultimately returned to its independence and integrity, it was imperative that this action of Musharraf’s be reversed. It was important that the precedent that was set should record instead the victory of an institution over the highhandedness of a political leader. Therefore, who the deposed chief justice is has nothing to do with the argument. Neither do the leanings of the parties that support the lawyers’ movement. What matters is that the sanctity of our state institutions be preserved. Second, every party in power must accept the people’s mandate, and the ‘natural state’ of politics that it creates. In Pakistan, this natural state, at least for now, requires PPP rule at the centre, an ANP-led coalition in the NWFP, Sindh shared between the PPP and MQM, a coalition government of regional parties in Balochistan and the PML-N in Punjab (or whichever configuration of the Muslim League that the Sharif brothers choose to lead).The PPP failed to demonstrate this, and under the ill-conceived machinations of the Punjab governor, attempted to deny Punjab to the PML-N. The point is not that the PPP cannot have Punjab. It is that if the PPP wants Punjab, it is welcome to take it, but not through the political underhandedness of a greedy governor. Rather, it should take it the way Bhutto did in the 1970s, sweeping through the province and capturing the imagination of its students, its labourers, its farmers and its landless.As I was told by a member of the landless rural class in Punjab while conducting research in a village, ‘Pakistan was liberated in 1947. We were liberated by Bhutto in the 1970s.’ It is this popular mandate that the PPP must win back in Punjab if it wants to control it. Aligning itself with the PML-Q, a party shunned by the majority of Punjabi voters in the 2008 election, simply doesn’t cut it. It is for this reason that I cheered the return of the PML-N in Punjab, even though I doubt that I will ever vote for it.Third, I cheered on Monday morning because the PPP had been saved. Watching the arrests, restrictions, and barricades ordered by the PPP government over the last few days, seeing Section 144 being clamped in one city after another and remaining aware of the fact that governor’s rule in Punjab was alive and well, I imagined that I was watching the slow and very painful demise of the PPP and all that it stood for.Yet, at the same time I saw party stalwarts resign from office; I heard them take a stand against party lines in favour of institutions; and I watched a beleaguered prime minister make all the right choices. Finally, when I heard his decision in the early hours of March, I realised that despite the fact that the party had fallen into the hands of a chairperson who seemed not to understand democracy, the PPP was safe and would continue to play its role as a truly national party. When it comes to politics in Pakistan, nothing is simple. One’s affiliations are under constant review. But this is not a bad thing, because otherwise we would simply be unprincipled observers of unprincipled politicians.The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.