Four wrong turns that set us right


Saleem A Sethi

Someone has said that black and white thinking doesn’t work in a grey world. The realm of politics is even grayer. A good thing done today may turn out to be the worst of all when looked in retrospect. The use of religion in the war between capitalism and communism for example; remember the crumbling down of Soviet Union and the optimism that at that moment, and look at the world now. Nobody knows how to turn the tide or undo the irreparable damage caused to the world at large.
During the recent years Pakistan experienced some chaotic developments which appeared so ominous at that moment. But now they seem to be a mix of both good and bad.
The first in this list is the emergence of Justice (r) Iftekhar Mohammad Chaudhry. His first introduction to the nation was his being a member of the Supreme Court bench in the year 2000 which validated Gen Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup and empowered him to amend the constitution as well. The second time he made it to the headlines was when allegations were made against him regarding reimbursement of fake medical and petrol bills.
But then came March 9, 2007 and that unbelievable ‘No’ which he uttered to Pervez Musharraf when he was asked to resign. The moment became a turning point in the nation’s history which resulted in the reinstatement of Iftekhar Chaudhry as Chief Justice and the downfall of the military dictatorship.
But things went topsy-turvy once he settled himself in the saddle. Instead of the military, which historically posed a threat to civilian governments, it was the judiciary this time that became a cause of political instability and a challenge to democratically elected government as long as he remained at the helm. Many of the observers hold this view that he left no stone unturned to cause a political havoc. He also failed to strengthen judiciary as an institution.
Yet, when we see things today, two things are very obvious; one, that this is not the judiciary of the past, and two, that any future military bonapartist will take into consideration the judiciary’s reaction besides that of the people of Pakistan, internally and that of the international community, externally.
The second thing that happened and which appeared bad at that time was, Asif Ali Zardari. No one can rival him in bad personal reputation. Anyone can throw anything dirty at him and it’s almost guaranteed that it will stick. As far as governance is concerned, his party’s five-year term is considered to be the worst in country’s history. It was so bad that, along with some other factors, it wiped PPP as a political party.
Yet, those five years that he succeeded to stick to power, in itself turned out to be a great contribution to the country’s march towards a more democratic order. The constitutional amendments during those five years restored most of the 1973 constitution in its original form besides giving greater autonomy to the provinces. Zardari’s unconditional support to the PML-N government during PTI’s dharna was undoubtedly the single most important factor that saved the day for the elected government.
The third apparently bad development that threatened the very survival of the democratic dispensation was the aggressive, protest-based politics of Imran Khan. He added a new vocabulary to the political lexicon and a new crude culture of impoliteness. He also exhibited lack of vision and political comprehension. A blatant disregard for the constitutional arrangement of the country and the institutions established under it is also an allegation that his detractors make against him.
But it is also a fact that his stubbornness and single-minded determination has positively contributed to the country’s stale political environment. No doubt that politicians have had little opportunity to rule this country independently. No doubt that the sword of the establishment always hanged over their head. And no doubt that civilian governments were undermined through backdoor machinations. But it is also true that they didn’t try whatever little opportunity was available to them when they came to power.
Beside everything else, the civilian rulers considered corruption and patronage as their birthright and their predominant incentive to seek political power. No more. With the advent of a ‘fiercely independent’ media, new communication technology including social media and an apparently ‘insane’ Imran Khan, things don’t seem to the same again. Bad governance and corruption didn’t figure when it came to people making electoral choices in the past. Many believe they won’t in the next election too. But it doesn’t seem so. There were things which didn’t matter in the past. But recent democratic verdicts around the world — and in Pakistan, too — have shown that it is time for the unthinkable to happen in politics.
The most negative things which are associated with the person and politics of Imran Khan are his lack of political acumen, his personal inconsistency and his trademark unpredictability. These are the reasons that most of the political observers declared him unfit to be entrusted with highest political responsibilities. However, there are quarters among the political analysts which think that this factor is beneficial for the greater good of democratic order as these same traits make him ineligible for the top slot in the eyes of the powers that be. And that, in turn, reduces the chances of manipulation of the electoral process in the near future.
The fourth bad thing that turned good for democracy was the person of General (r) Raheel Sharif.
His was a case of ‘he came, he saw but he went away’. He appeared on the horizon nothing but a soldier. But the political instability that marked his three-year stint, the non-military projects that he tied to start, and the frightening PR exercise betrayed the perception of a straight forward soldier. Even the military projects of the state were used for the projection of self-image and which spoke volumes about a parallel decision-making authority in the country. Gen Raheel exercised maximum control over core policies of the state, be it relating to internal and external security or foreign relations with key states.
But his exit from the scene without actually doing anything wrong against the democratic order has strengthen the system. Why?
Because it has made the people think that democratic order can survive and absorb the shock without any outside intervention or derailment. If Nawaz Sharif can survive such big threats like PTI’s 2014 dharna and 2016’s threatened lockdown, why would army’s takeover be needed in future? And if as powerful and popular an army chief can’t impose martial law despite favorable circumstances, who one else will dare to do so in future? As a bonus, the civilian side is likely to reclaim some of the political territory occupied by the military after the exit of ‘the most popular’ army chief in the country’s history.
Despite the bad things that are associated with these four personalities — and we haven’t highlighted them here in detail — what they succeeded to achieve were because of one factor; there was popular support behind them. Whether it was Ch Iftekhar in overstepping his legal mandate or it was Zardari bringing changes to the constitution that were simply unacceptable to the military establishment; whether it was Imran Khan breaking all the rules of the game or whether it was Gen Raheel Sharif taking control of everything beyond the call of his duty and in violation of the constitution, there was one thing that allowed them to do that. It was the support of the people. And there is much for the civilian, political rulers to learn.