Aug 10, 2009

Sustaining democracy

As we celebrate (not that there is much to celebrate) the 63rd independence day one dynamic is clearly discernible in Pakistan’s history — the inextricable link between democracy and the sustenance of our independence and the ideals of our freedom movement.

The most important lesson of the past six decades is the intrinsic connection between our long-term stability and prosperity and the upholding of democratic principles and practices as laid down in the constitution of Pakistan. By the same token political and economic disaster awaits us in case of deviation from the democratic path.

Democracy was writ large on the historic movement which led to the creation of Pakistan. The latter was the culmination of a democratic idea. It represented the determination of the Muslims of South Asia to acquire a definite territory where they could exercise sovereign power without colonial domination and free from a caste-ridden social system.

The first concrete manifestation of this national impulse was the Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940. This resolution became the platform of the All India Muslim League in the 1945-46 campaign for the provincial and central legislatures. The result was an emphatic victory for Pakistan. The League won all the Muslim seats in the central assembly and 446 out of a total of 495 Muslim seats in the provincial assemblies.

Less than two years later, Pakistan had come into existenc1e. In his presidential address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah underscored the grave responsibility that rested on the legislators in framing a constitution for the new state.

A year later displaying an unusual degree of prescience Jinnah stressed to the officers of the Staff College, Quetta, the significance of the oath that they were administered. He made it clear that executive authority flowed from the head of the government of Pakistan and any ‘command or orders that may come to you cannot come without the sanction of the executive head. This is the legal position’.

Both the 1956 and 1973 constitutions focused on democratic governance as the most viable mechanism in fostering socio-economic development and ensuring the fundamental rights of the people. Wary of Bonapartism, the 1973 constitution contained an article (Article 6) which considered as high treason any attempt to subvert or abrogate the constitution. Yet, neither the virtues of democracy nor the threat of high treason prevented the military from deposing democratically elected governments and abrogating or disfiguring the fundamental law of the land.

The ‘most serpentine of all’ Gen Ziaul Haq referred to the constitution as a scrap of paper which he could at any time and without any consequence consign to the waste-paper basket. He promised elections within three months and then realising that the PPP would win, hypocritically told the nation that it wasn’t written in the Quran that he was to hold elections within 90 days. Gen Musharraf too subscribed to the belief that the people of Pakistan were unfit for democracy.

Every time a blow was struck at the constitution and democracy, Pakistan wilted. The political process which began with the movement for the establishment of Pakistan was derailed; the state institutions painstakingly set up and nurtured over the years stunted under the shadow of the army; people were robbed of their dignity as the likes of Ziaul Haq acquired the dubious distinction of having journalists, lawyers and political activists publicly flogged and creativity and energy sapped in a constricted and tightly controlled environment.

Assault on the democratic order has traditionally come from the military. Cognisant of this danger and having grievously suffered from these night forays by the armed forces into forbidden territory, the two major political parties in the country — PPP and PML-N — decided in the Charter of Democracy that ‘only the people and no one else has the sovereign right to govern through their elected representatives, as conceived by the democrat, par excellence, Father of the Nation, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’.

Mere profession of a noble principle is unfortunately not enough to deter the military from encroachment on civilian authority. The tide of history is indeed in favour of democracy. But democratic governments, in order to sustain themselves, must find pragmatic solutions to the political and economic problems of the people they represent.

Democracy, after all, is not an end in itself, but is considered to be the least defective of various political mechanisms to provide social justice, prosperity and peace and security to the masses. Mass poverty and the virtual absence of educational and health facilities are simply not compatible with independence. Democratic governments must embed their policies and commitments for empowerment of the masses deep in the institutions of the state.

The immediate threat to the democratic order, and ultimately to the territorial integrity of the country, flows from radical religious militants, who have demonstrated through words and deeds their contempt for the constitution and democratic values. This existential threat to the state must be countered with all the available resources at our command, until the last vestige of militancy has been eliminated. An essential prerequisite for this is the establishment of peaceful, cooperative relations with India.

Independence is synonymous with the democratic experiment. It is in the interest of the people’s representatives to engage the best talents in this venture, so that in the competition between freedom and authoritarianism, the former triumphs and with it true independence.

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