Last Friday, three friends of mine commented in this paper on “the state of the nation,” each presenting a contrary view. Much of what each wrote about the nature of the problem makes sense to me. But some of the prescribed solutions raise disturbing questions in my mind.
Shaheen Sehbai is outraged by the continuing corruptions and blunders of the Zardari regime, no less than the “miserable” opposition of Nawaz Sharif. “In three years, the political system has collapsed, the parties have turned into mafias, the economy has officially reached the point of bankruptcy, security has vanished and people have been crushed under the weight of struggling for sheer survival caused by the grandiose failures on all counts,” he argued. “Politicians have to understand that a crippled and dilapidated Pakistan which cannot be revived would be in no one’s interest,” he reasoned. More ominously, he concluded: “That stage will not be allowed. It should not be allowed. If politicians cannot deliver, someone has to.”
Who might be that “someone”?
My friend’s solution was articulated thus: “In practical terms, the military is already calling the shots because Zardari and Sharif have failed, singly and jointly. Besides the strategic assets, the military establishment controls the internal, external, economic and financial policies. The commanders get regular briefings on all critical issues, even matters like Reko Diq contracts and negotiations with the IMF. They talk directly to Washington on matters of vital importance. They have not acted to stop the rot because they thought the politicians will themselves rise to correct the system. They have been proved wrong.”
Is my friend suggesting that it is time for the military to stop pussyfooting and overthrow this crippled, crumbling and failing political system to set things right?
I hope not. I have serious problems with such prescriptions. We have had three military interventions, and each has been a terrible, divisive, politically impoverishing experience and left ugly scars on our body politic. If a litany of political blunders can be laid at the door of this civilian government – actually, of every civilian government to date – much worse political abuse can be attributed to our wannabe military saviours.
Shaheen should know what I am talking about. After all, he was among the most outspoken critics of the last two military dictators to stalk our land. And if, as he says, “in practical terms, the military is already calling all the shots...and controls the internal, external, economic and financial policies” of the country, what more is left to hand over to the khakis? And if, by handing over practical control of the fate of this country to the khakis under the facade of a civilian regime, we are going from bad to worse, why should we invite more trouble by legitimising another military intervention?
My friend Ayaz Amir is more anguished than outraged. Like Shaheen, he too is desperate for someone to appear on the horizon like a gallant knight and exorcise “the demons and nightmares” haunting our beloved country. Who might be that “someone”?
“Only a Kemalist army” could make a go of it, he believes. But in the same breath, Ayaz correctly dismisses the notion that “an army high command wedded to a fortress-of-Islam myth can take Pakistan out of these woods.” Indeed, it is his view that “between the armies commanded by Mustafa Kemal and those which guard our ideological frontiers – never mind the inconveniences of geography – the distance is as vast as between the mountains and the seas.”
So what is the challenge today? “As in 1966-67.” writes Ayaz, “it is to sense the hot winds blowing and fill with something new, some colour and poetry, the barren desert of ideas which is the national political stage... Pakistan needs a makeover, a turning away from the past and a reinvention of the very idea of Pakistan. Is there any artist out there who can fulfil this historic task?”
If my idealist friend Ayaz doesn’t have any “artistic” answers, there is no shortage of those who hanker for a Khomeini to save Pakistan a la Iran, which is neither a Western-type “democracy” like Pakistan, nor a praetorian regime like Egypt or an autocratic one like the one that has just perished in Tunisia. Is a pious strong man at the top the need of the hour?
Pakistan certainly needs much more law and order. It also needs better economic management, greater social equality and much less corruption. But a “Made in Pakistan” Islamic revolution is neither possible, nor desirable. For one, an Islamic revolution, as opposed to a putsch (like the one by Gen Ziaul Haq), requires a regional and religious homogeneity (as in Iran) and intellectual leadership (like the Ayatollahs) that is missing in Pakistan. Also, the performance of the religious parties in government – the PNA during Gen Zia’s time and the MMA during Gen Musharraf’s tenure – was worse than that of the mainstream parties in the 1990s. Therefore, any such frustrated impulse is a recipe for anarchy, not good governance. Also, one should not overly glorify the Islamic Revolution in Iran in view of the marked and increasing yearning for greater “Western type-freedoms and democracy” among its urban middle classes.
So where do we go from here?
My friend Shafqat Mahmood is not so forlorn. For him, “the state of governance in our country that fed deep pessimism suddenly seems capable of reformation. The internal checks that were never visible before in the system have now come aggressively to the fore. And are beginning to leave a mark.” He is referring to the newly aggressive and independent Supreme Court of Pakistan. “What has not been experienced in any sustained way is the impact of judicial accountability on corruption. Seeing it unfold graphically, with all the details being laid bare, is not only surprising (and satisfying) but opens up immense possibilities.” He is talking about the Supreme Court’s intervention to hold the high and mighty politicians and bureaucrats accountable for corruption and misuse of power, no less than its firm advice to the military to remain within the ambit of the law and Constitution regarding the “missing” persons.
I agree. We have experimented with men on horseback like Gens Ayub, Zia and Musharraf and with wannabe Bonapartes like Z A Bhutto, and lived to regret it. Therefore, we must try and fix the system incrementally, without derailing it. In this regard, the Supreme Court is rightly banging on about accountability and corruption. No less significant, there is, finally. broad agreement between the government and opposition over the essential elements of an agenda for reform, even if the will is still weak and there is much foot-dragging. Sooner or later, too, we will have a neutral Chief Election Commissioner and NAB chairman, and then we can have another go at trying to make parliamentary democracy work.
But I would be amiss if I did not raise qualms about two core institutions that need to reform themselves if we are to get going. The army must revamp its national-security doctrine and stop insisting on commandeering the heights of economy and society in an age of internal scarcity and regional distrust. And the media must act with greater responsibility to encourage a progressive, moderate and international outlook in the mindset of the nation. No modern democracy or economy can work in the stifling environment of religious orthodoxy, international isolation or military supremacy.
The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.