Pakistan: Route to safety?

Route to safety
By I.A. Rehman, Dawn, July 17, 2008

THERE is no doubt that despondency is on the rise. All one hears is a lament on the luckless Pakistanis.

The popular refrain is: the people created a wonderful chance for the restoration of democracy and removal of citizens’ grievances but those at the helm of affairs are blowing this chance away. Some even say the opportunity is lost already. This bodes ill for Pakistan.

The most ominous aspect of the state of despondency is that the chorus of discontent is not being orchestrated by the government’s political rivals alone; equally unhappy are neutral observers and even those who wish the coalition partners success. A competition is going on to determine who can project the most terrifying scenario of doom. It may not be easy in this situation to entertain optimism and yet the risks in being swept away by frustration and not doing anything to arrest the downward slide are too great to be ignored. The democratic experiment can perhaps be saved if those invested with the people’s trust in February address their task with due sincerity and diligence.

The first priority must be the preservation of the ruling coalition, whose formation was as important an event as the election itself. A break-up will be disastrous. The PPP may be able to stay in power but whatever arrangements it might make will entail negation of the election mandate and an end to the transition to democracy. It will also jeopardise its prospects in the next election which may come sooner than expected. Also, the PML-N’s victory dreams may not materialise. Worse than anything else, the state could be pushed back into the dark alley of despotism, making the threat to national integrity insurmountable.

Secondly, it needs to be realised that a government’s strength does not lie in its parliamentary majority nor in the shining livery of ministers and other factotums; it lies in retaining the goodwill of the masses. No regime has ever survived a poor and friendless people’s wrath stemming from denial of bread and the small needs of modest existence. The French Revolution and the Soviet Union’s fall apart, hunger, joblessness and insecurity played a significant part in the rout of the Unionists in Punjab (1945-46), in the fall of the first PPP government (1976-77), and even in the fall of Gen Zia (1984-88).

The people today are suffering beyond their endurance. They cannot be satisfied by an administration reading charge sheets against the past government or taking cover behind global phenomena. Something must be done to defuse the time bomb of public disaffection.

Thirdly, the government must define its immediate tasks and fix priorities. In the present situation these cannot but include the judiciary’s restoration, control of militancy and relief to all segments of society. Making promises to do this or that is useless. Such gestures must be based on proper studies and revival strategies. This should have been done immediately after the February polls and the government saved from wasting many of its first 100 days on inquiries. A clear statement of objectives, organisation and means will help even now.

Fourthly, responsible governance demands an efficient state apparatus, and finding the right person for the right job. No government can survive a public perception that instead of finding the right people for key jobs it is interested only in allotting gainful slots to its hangers-on or persons who might have done its leaders favours. Nobody has a right to pay for personal favours out of state resources. Some of the favourite appointees may be experienced wheeler-dealers but their baggage will always prevent them from gaining public confidence — a vital condition for any administration’s success. It is necessary to drop some outstanding undesirables. That may quench some fires of discontent.

Fifthly, one of the tests people everywhere apply to judge their rulers relates to the style of governance. Rulers in a republic cannot afford to display the pomp and splendour of a monarch’s court. The poorer a people the greater is their hatred for their rulers’ show of opulence. They feel at home with rulers they can identify with — and this depends on how the rulers live, how they travel, and what language and idiom they use for discourse. Even in corrupt societies corruption in high places, and mere stories of such corruption, undermine the people’s loyalty to the state. Such stories — not confined to a single party — have already started fuelling gossip, and it seems quite a few people are not interested in staying in politics for long. Corruption can bring down regimes sooner than any other folly. A regime claiming to be democratic is more vulnerable to corruption charges than a dictatorship because it does not have the means to hide facts the way the latter can.

Sixthly, colonial/authoritarian regimes thrive on dividing their subjects along religious, sectarian, class and ethnic lines. A government that claims to be democratic cannot afford to indulge in such suicidal games. Pakistan is a multinational, multi-faith and multilingual state. Repudiation of this reality has cost Pakistan dear. The government will do well to review its conduct in this regard and intervene if any religious, ethnic or linguistic group is feeling left out of the scheme of representative rule or the state’s benevolence.

Seventhly, Pakistani governments have traditionally created problems by reading external policies wrongly. That a country’s external policy must be an extension of its domestic policy is an axiom that need not be dismissed as a worn-out cliché. Pakistan does have difficulties in devising an external policy that is in harmony with the people’s interest and aspirations but the task must not be given up as hopeless without a struggle.

Eighthly, the government will do the people a great good if it helps them grow out of the security syndrome created by half-baked strategists. The country cannot be defended by soldiers and arms alone. Much greater is the need for a contented society and the inculcation of a belief among the people that the country and its resources belong to them. The presentation of the defence budget in parliament was good, but only a small beginning (nobody among the expert commentators is prepared to refer to it) and there is a long way to go before sovereignty is restored to its rightful claimants — the people.

Finally, the government must ensure collective decision-making, a regular dialogue with the people (not merely Ayub-style broadcasts) and transparency.

Few seem to believe the present leadership can rise to the occasion, but if they are duly trusted and properly motivated the people can steer the ship of state to safety. Muneer Niazi may have been right but however cruel the townsfolk no one is ordained to find escape in death.

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