Mind the Gap: The State of Affairs in Pakistan

Mind the gap
By I.A. Rehman, Dawn, July 10, 2008

AFTER its first hundred days in office the PPP government has been receiving most uncomplimentary notices, possibly less charitable than it deserves.

The reason perhaps is not so much its failure to deliver on its promises, as the public impression is that it has not tried seriously enough. Besides, authority and the common citizen seem to be operating on different wavelengths.

Perhaps it was improper to make promises to achieve specific targets in less than four months because such gestures sometimes arouse expectations that cannot easily be met. It might have been better to pledge earnest attention, in general terms, to the complex issues inherited from an administration that was known to have mined the politico-economic terrain and then periodically report on the scale of accomplishments.

Given the circumstances in which it took over, the government has not done badly. It began by accepting the need for understanding among political forces professing allegiance to democratic norms. Apart from trying to ease the economic hardships of state employees and wage-earners, it has given much needed priority to dismantling the more oppressive features of authoritarian rule by easing the curbs on workers and students, by relaxing the system of media control (except for a foolish incident), and by moving away from the tradition of bludgeoning protesters such as lawyers. It also took important steps to end Pakistan’s indifference to international mechanisms for the promotion of the people’s basic rights in both economic and civil categories and for their protection against torture.

These modest initiatives, however welcome to middle class advocates of people’s weal, are not enough to convince the masses of a positive change, particularly when a steep rise in the cost of living caused by huge jumps in food prices and gas and power tariffs has pushed them to the edge of despair. Coupled with the fact that militancy is still threatening to hijack the state and tear the social fabric into shreds, the common citizens are getting the feeling that the government lacks the capacity to enforce its will in their interest. The government has increased its difficulties by giving the impression that it could quickly discard some black laws, such as IRO-2002, the Frontier Crimes Regulation and the Pemra Ordinances.

A few lapses in the area of democratic management have compounded the government’s problems. There is need to ensure the initial show of rule by consensus among democratic-looking parties continues. Authority must throw up the image of a self-reliant collective, and erase all signs of absolutism, active as well as dormant. It should discourage solo flights in favour of broader platforms of action, e.g. constitutional reform. As done to some extent in energy and poverty-alleviation sectors, it should look for the benefits governments derive by telling the people of the progress of their initiatives.

However, nothing has harmed the new government more than its prevarication on the twin judges and presidency issues. There seems to be little room for speculation on its hazy line of action. The judges are not to be restored in a hurry and not in the manner demanded by the lawyers, and President Musharraf is to be worn down to a point that he throws in the towel in disgust. The assumption is that while the judges issue can be solved in a jiffy that means the president will have to depart and that is something the PPP high command cannot afford or does not at the moment want. There is good reason to re-examine this vacuous thinking.

The arguments in favour of restoring the judiciary to the Nov 2, 2007 status are irrefutable. The cause of constitutionalism apart, the matter has given rise to a spectacular movement to turn Pakistan into a legitimate state. For over 16 months the lawyers have been fighting a battle to establish the supremacy of the people’s democratic will over authoritarianism, giving citizens the hope that they are not incapable of shaping their destiny. They have given the world a new face of Pakistan — the face of a vibrant political entity capable of standing by its convictions. To frustrate them now will amount to abandoning a good opportunity for Pakistan’s resurrection.

The objections to the return of the judges placed under extra-constitutional restraint have lost force. Many, including good lawyers, may have reservations about this judge or that but personalities do not matter, no longer at any rate. References to the past sins of the judiciary, including their making too many oaths (to recall a Justice Kayani phuljhari) are of little use. True, the judiciary failed the democratic-minded people many a time.

However, fairness demands that the Gilani government’s point of view should not be dismissed without being heard even if its counsel is found wanting by some stalwarts in black robes. What the government and the lawyers both have to realise is that an understanding between them is vital to the continuance of the democratic experiment. Neither of them may survive a return to an extra-democratic rule.

As regards the presidency too, the PPP leadership may be wrong in assuming that it could beat the president at a game of attrition. Indeed, Gen (retd) Musharraf has gone on the offensive. He chose Karachi and the company of his fellow street-fighters to sound the bugle for a battle royal (or perhaps a police encounter). Not content with announcing that the army will never discard him, he chose to discuss the national economy and the prospects for a government of like-minded parties with the Pir of Pagara, though this act not only compromised the non-partisan status of his office (in theory at least) but also exposed a chink in his armour.

The days of Iskander Mirza may have passed but the PPP cannot afford to ignore the straws in the wind. A wave of religious turmoil is threatening to engulf the whole country, traders are baring their teeth, nuclear hawks are regaining their speech, and poverty is being discovered by those who have contributed to it. The PPP may have moved far away from its 1970 moorings but the phalanx of Shylocks it had taken on four decades ago are in no mood to forgive it.

Governments do not always rise and fall by their deeds and misdeeds alone. A more important role is played by public perception of matters. The public perception last Sunday was determined by two events — the blast in Islamabad, which revealed the grim challenge to the state, and the clubbing to death of three small children by their miserable father in a village in the ‘prosperous’ and ‘educated’ Punjab, which showed the abyss of hopelessness Pakistan’s poor find themselves in. It is never too soon to start minding the gap between a government’s claims and the common perception of its performance.

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