Mar 19, 2009

The days after the march

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editorThe many who had advised deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to reach some sort of "deal" or "compromise" following the 2008 polls have reason to reconsider their words.Though in many cases their suggestions were well-intended, meant to bring an end to the political deadlock that gradually grew in the country after the PML-N parted ways with the PPP in May 2008, building towards ever-growing instability, we must be glad the chief justice chose not to listen. His stubborn stand on principles has helped show us all that it is not necessary to make constant adjustments or to make concessions at every stage. While dialogue, negotiation and the building of consensus are almost invariably acts that help resolve crises, at some points we need to stand firm on issues that are important. The refusal to give in made possible the astonishing triumph of people we saw last weekend. Everywhere in the country, perhaps most notably in Lahore which saw the most action Sunday, there is a new spring in the step of people, a new sense of pride in their achievement as citizens. Video footage is played over mobile phones and hand-held cameras of Hamza Shahbaz, the son of Shahbaz, using his vehicle to ram boldly through buses being used by authorities as barricades while hundreds stand and cheer. Other clips show people in Sheikhpura, in Gujranwala and in other cities commandeering cranes from building sites and using them to calmly shift the giant containers placed along roads by the men of Rehman Malik, at enormous expense, in a bid to stop the marchers. The tactics the government used was no match against a force of people which gained numbers only slowly, but then brought in women, children, teenagers, entire families with it to present an insurmountable challenge to the government. By doing so, people, perhaps for the first time in recent history, demonstrated that they have the power to make a difference and that decisions are not always made in foreign capitals or in offices where men in khaki uniforms pore over shadowy plans and strategies. This is a hugely important discovery.The prime minister, by springing rather unexpectedly out of the shadows of the Presidency has made his mark; he will be remembered in history for his brave actions when it came to the crunch. PPP ministers who resigned to protest the dictatorial behaviour of the president provided Mr Gilani the pathway along which to walk. Sherry Rehman and Raza Rabbani must be applauded for demonstrating the moral courage to stand by their convictions – and to prove that somewhere within the PPP, the conscience and the desire to stand by people which was a part of the party when it was founded more than four decades ago, still finds at least some place. The challenge for Mr Gilani must be to keep the spirit going. He must now move towards other change aimed at strengthening institutions, bringing them fully into the framework of the 1973 Constitution – still the document that creates most consensus – and establishing the supremacy of a Parliament that has so far played only a secondary role in national events since the last election. There are many indications that this is just what Mr Gilani intends to work towards.In the Presidency, one wonders what is being said beneath the glittering chandeliers and ornate drapings that cut inhabitants off from reality. Does Mr Zardari realise what immense mistakes he has made? Does he know that an opportunity to claim credit for a judicial restoration was squandered due mainly to foolishness and a feeling of megalomania? Have his coterie of advisors gathered red-faced and offered explanations? Will any of them have the grace to step down? Certainly, the president's own claims that he had in fact never opposed Justice Chaudhry's return and was waiting only for Justice Dogar's tenure to end persuades no one at all. It only leaves everyone in that enormous house on the hill looking sillier than ever. Quite obviously, they were compelled by circumstances and the persuasion of powerful players to put up no hurdles in the way of the judicial restoration and permit the prime minister's predawn announcement.Some worrying trends have emerged over the past few days. An attempt was made to play the so-called "Sindh" card, with the president held up as a victim of events, like leaders from the province before him. This is absurd. It is however not an isolated event. According to reports in the Sindhi-language press, President Zardari, at the end of January this year, had lashed out vehemently at a meeting with Sindhi parliamentarians for failing to protect him. Ministers from that province were accused of being too inactive and of failing to appear on TV talk shows to defend the president against mounting criticism. All this is disturbing. There is no doubt that deep tensions exist between federating units. The attempt to use these to meet a personal need or to defend the indefensible is dangerous. It undermines the efforts of campaigners in Sindh, and elsewhere, to draw attention to the very real issues they face. The fact is that the people of Sindh are far too intelligent to be duped in this fashion. The Sindhi media, whose standards in terms of ethics and quality exceed those of many channels broadcasting in national languages, has jubilantly backed the restoration of the chief justice. People everywhere in the province make it clear they can see beyond the narrow boundaries of ethnicity and can assess their leaders on merit.But this having been said, the fact remains that the provincial strains within our Federation are real. The prime minister and other national leaders, including Mian Nawaz Sharif, need to direct attention towards them and to do more to build national harmony. This is possible only by granting provinces greater autonomy and offering them a full share in decision-making.For the present, the prospects for Pakistan seem brighter than ever. The new confidence can be seen in many places. Even the Karachi Stock Market has reacted almost instantly, climbing back up several hundred points after weeks spent in a listless slump. In other cities, shop-owners report an increase in sales which they link to the more optimistic mood of people. The key need for leaders is to keep this spirit of hope going, to ensure people remain a part of political life at every level and can be taken along during the days ahead to meet the many challenges that still lie ahead.We must remember that though an important victory has been achieved, the war on many other fronts continues and can be won only if the momentum that has been built is kept going so that bigger change can also be brought about.

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