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April 2, 2017
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Landscaping current politics

Opinion

April 2, 2017

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The political community of Pakistan continues to operate in the wilderness. Rival contenders for power, from politics and the state – parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces – as well as smaller outfits compete with each in the public arena to render the other unpopular and immoral. While there is a gruesome wait for the court verdict in the Panama leaks case, political activity is in low gear.

It is worth looking at a plethora of apparently unrelated activities that seek a meaningful presence in the system. The controversy raised by Husain Haqqani’s article about the issuance of visas to Americans before the Abbottabad operation has found fertile ground in Pakistan. The government has been engaged with the US government for a joint effort against terrorism.

But public opinion and the media continue to operate within an anti-American intellectual milieu. Similarly, there is nothing to look forward beyond a stale narrative about CPEC that seems to have become controversial role among the provinces over the eastern and western routes and some murky loans and subsidies. With Nawaz Sharif in Sindh and Asif Zardari in Punjab –  ie in places where they are generally not  supposed to be – there is at least something tangible for political pundits to talk about.

Civil-military relations remain on an even keel, balanced by the accepted fact of an imbalance between the two sides.  The ISPR continues to play its role through interjections in the debate about various issues and operates through press releases as usual – a crucial reminder of its formidable presence in the public arena. The PML-N and PTI spokespersons on TV channels are somewhat holding their guns these days while the Supreme Court is in recess       on the Panama leaks case.   There is a change in the pattern of the rise and fall of political temperatures in recent days on this spectacle, even as political observers expect the court verdict to not create any major upset for the prevalent ruling setup before elections.

Surveillance, intelligence activity and hardcore military operations notwithstanding, the making and shaping of the radical Islamic framework of thought and practice have continued unabated. The idea is that the elimination of the instruments and factories of production for terrorism and extremism are beyond the capacity or will of the state. The human agency responsible for perpetuating violence has been deeply ingratiated by the prevalent power structure – both civil and military – during the last quarter of a century. The verdict is: kill the terrorist; do not kill the terrorist mind. Not surprisingly, this mind is playing havoc with peace in society through education and the media. As can be expected, the government and the establishment blame each other for the failure of NAP without facing the fundamental intellectual challenge in the form of the ideological construct prevalent in society.

Has the election campaign started in earnest? The three mainstream parties – the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI – seem to be putting their party machinery   into electoral gear. The PML-N has a clear advantage at this moment, with the top executive position in its hand, Punjab safely under control and the leadership confident to move into Sindh. A negative verdict of the     Panama leaks case can upset the cart for the party.  Asif Zardari’s statement that the courts never give a verdict against  Nawaz Sharif seems to be part of the pressure on the Supreme Court which was built by the PTI during the last several months. On its part, the PML-N’s reaction to a negative outcome might be cast in the idiom of a blow to democracy – this time at the hands of the judiciary instead of the army. Musharraf, in one of his TV interviews, showed eagerness for the judiciary to take action against the civilian government on the issue of corruption.

Democracy is the issue of the political class – both inside and outside parliament. However, corruption is the issue of the middle class that generally serves as the catchment area for the recruitment of the state apparatuses of the army, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Will the twain ever meet? What is cooking in the corridors of power? The potential and willingness of the two sides to move ahead with cooperation with each other in the pursuit of national goals will decide the route to political stability. The decision to hold the PSL final in Lahore was one such instance of joining hands. The current census operation is another. One wonders whether in India – or, for that matter, in Iran, Turkey, France and Germany – the government would need the military’s input in the census at this scale. The civilian setup’s lack of potential to hold the census on its own means that Pakistan is a soft state.

Why is that so? In the absence of a consensus on the political agenda about the national goals, Pakistan has become a Tower of Babel, a cacophony of discordant voices. A series of mini-conflicts represents the norm that, in turn, shapes the political landscape. This includes campus politics where ideologically-motivated students – especially in Punjab – have made news headlines through their supra-curricular activities. At the other end, the persecution of minorities, especially Ahmadis, continues to be a blot on the national conscience. While military courts were typically accepted by the political leadership – largely because of its own weakness vis-a-vis the security apparatus – the Supreme Court Bar Association felt that military justice is akin to justice denied.

Controversies abound – be it NAB’s peculiar way of dealing with corruption through plea bargains, CPEC’s intrusive role in power production through coal, the KP CM’s arbitrary changes in the law pertaining to the Ehtesab Commission along with his threat of agitation against the failure to count overseas Pakistan from KP in the census and the refusal of a Lahore High Court bench to drop the contempt case against three lawyers whose case is under consideration by the Punjab Bar Association. What is going on? Why are new social groups constantly entering into the arena where conflict pervades?

First, there is no consensus on the rules of the game. Is democracy supreme – the first among all other concerns? If not, then you have the answer to why there is conflict between commitments. The political and constitutional structure of the state is such that the rule of public representatives is the only order of the day. Any challenge in the form of religious or sectarian commitments, the moral stick of the corruption-accountability nexus or any other forceful bondage of a section of the elite or society can lead to chaos and instability through the multiplication of political actors and their extra-systemic activities.

The propensity to seek the elimination of political adversaries is a primitive approach. The civil-military dichotomy in the context of the ruling ideas of statecraft remains a thorny question. Election fever before its time is madness. The issue of a political role for overseas Pakistanis is a mere extension of census-related demographic nationalism. The political landscape of Pakistan is littered with issues in the face of a system that lacks an effective conflict-resolution mechanism.

The writer is a professor at LUMS.

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