Saturday September 25, 2021

Democracy on a leash

March 17, 2018

There is no polite way of saying this: democracy and its institutions are on a very short leash. With Sadiq Sanjrani elected chairman of the Senate, the gamekeeper has made known to all and sundry that the leash has gotten shorter.

The sponsored narrative is now clearer. Accountability means that the Sharif-led PML-N and others who resist the gamekeeper’s diktat or the leash will find trouble. Rule of law means that defiant politicos and their cohorts in bureaucracy will be at its receiving end. Respect for institutions is reserved for the non-representative.

If you are not a proponent of ‘controlled democracy’ and haven’t yet bought into the drummed-up narrative that elected representatives are all scum out to make hay at the expense of this country, and non-representative institutions are the only saviours preventing us from falling over the edge, this is regression. What is worse is that there seems no visible path out of the vicious 10-year cycle we are caught in: democracy to controlled democracy to dictatorship. Since controlled democracy isn’t sustainable, we are on a slide toward the next stage.

Sanjrani was plucked out of thin air and installed at the head of parliament’s upper house. Is this what according ‘respect to institutions’ means? With Raza Rabbani replaced by Sanjrani, has the stature of the Senate and its chairman’s office been elevated? The path to getting a nobody to head the Senate wasn’t simple. The Balochistan Assembly had to be ‘inspired’ to revolt. The MQM-P had to be broken up, and its senators ‘encouraged’ to vote alongside the MQM’s archrival in Sindh. The PTI had to be cajoled to jump into Camp-Zardari. Horses had to be bought.

So why go through all this trouble? The chairman Senate doesn’t have veto powers to prevent legislation. What harm would be caused by a PML-N backed candidate or the continuation of the PPP’s Raza Rabbani as a consensus candidate? To make a simple point: there is a gamekeeper and you will be allowed to play only so far as you don’t cross him. Farhatullah Babar asked thorny questions and he is out. Raza Rabbani couldn’t control his candour and spoke of empowerment and supremacy of parliament. He has been cut to size.

And everyone sitting on the fence trying to figure out which direction the wind is going to blow this crucial election year had to be given a clear signal. The PML-N is out and will not be allowed back into the echelons of power. It will be chased and hunted and cut down if it doesn’t break. If Nawaz’s ouster didn’t establish to PML-electables that he stood banished, if Khadim Rizvi’s Faizabad dharna didn’t send an unequivocal message, if Tahirul Qadri’s Lahore event with Zardari and IK in attendance was a dud, the expedient Punjab had to be given a clearer message.

But here is the Nawaz problem for the gamekeeper: he is refusing to go away, he is refusing to listen to wiser counsel within the PML-N to hush-up, and he is refusing to abandon his ambition for himself and his daughter by making peace with the fact of the gamekeeper having decided that his time on the political stage is over. Panama has stigmatised Nawaz – but not enough to wean away his support base. Defiance of the gamekeeper has resonated with Nawaz’s supporters. The bet now is that locking him up (and maybe his daughter) after a conviction will do the trick.

What if that doesn’t work either? What if Nawaz ousted as PM and party head in exercise of the 184(3) jurisdiction by the Supreme Court through unconvincing judgments, followed by a (largely predictable) conviction for assets beyond means (as opposed to a corruption scandal), isn’t the final nail the gamekeeper is hoping it will be. A Nawaz rejected by people in a free and fair election for lack of performance, mal-governance or corruption would be one thing. A Nawaz put behind bars to signal to the electorate that his goose is cooked is another.

The gamekeeper doesn’t seem to believe in Newton’s third law: “For every action there is an equal or opposite reaction.” But our history bears it out. No popular leader has been erased from public imagination by force or engineering. What if the gamekeeper’s best efforts fail to break Nawaz’s spirit? Maryam was daddy’s girl till a few years back. The push by the gamekeeper and Maryam’s ability to hold her nerve and call out what she believes are excesses of the gamekeeper are transforming her into a leader. How will Pakistan react to her being locked up?

And if she isn’t locked up, imagine how biting her narrative will be this election year with her father locked up or thereafter as an opposition leader even if the gamekeeper manages to install governments in Punjab and the centre sans-PML-N. Not even realistic PTI insiders argue (speaking privately) that they can take Punjab in a straight fight with the PML-N. With Nawaz still popular, PML-N electables have nowhere to go. Managing a general election will be harder than managing the Senate. Have those running this show thought all this through?

The engineering has happened before our eyes. And yet we have smart and decent folks in the PPP and PTI making utter fools of themselves by proclaiming in public how the Senate election has been a victory for their respective parties. General Musharraf (now at an advanced stage of the foot-in-mouth disease) admitted in a recently circulated interview that the PML-Q didn’t have the required numbers to form government after the 2002 election and so intelligence agencies had to conjure up support for the party by ‘inspiring’ compromised politicos to switch sides.

Debates around the inherent un-workability of controlled democracy (or it being a winning idea for Pakistan) aside, it would be another thing if the gamekeeper were actually interested in cleaning up the stables. Our gamekeeper is not in the business of finding, exposing and disposing off skeletons in closets. It is in the business of encouraging skeleton creation, taking their account (and pictures), and preserving them for use when need be, such as the 2002 election etc. This is a key source of the leverage and power of persuasion of the gamekeeper.

A natural consequence of such control is that the most compromised folks are the most congenial to the gamekeeper’s diktat, and become its front men in all domains of national life wherein control has to be exercised from behind the curtain. The model is unstable because even those who owe their positions initially to the gamekeeper can grow the audacity to think and act independently and begin to loathe the idea of being dealt with a stick. That is when skeletons come handy. But blackmail can work so many times. At some point the system begins to falter.

The obvious problem with this skeleton-use model is its inability to usher constructive change or solve pressing problems. Two years back, Zardari was in the eye of the storm. Dr Asim was arrested. Zardari and his henchmen were running for cover. An accountability drive was in full swing in Sindh. Times changed along with the composition and plans of the gamekeeper. Zardari and his cohort were allowed back in and issued gaming licences for Balochistan and the Senate. The accountability drive in Sindh fell silent. That in Punjab kicked off with new zeal.

The larger narrative hasn’t changed. The country was being saved from BB and Nawaz in the 1990s, from Zardari post the 2008 election, and from Nawaz and his corruption now. An underlying argument of the proponents of controlled democracy building up the infallible gamekeeper is that those speaking up for democracy now are hypocrites as they have been on the gamekeeper’s roll in the past. Ironically, this argument is made even while the gamekeeper’s fresh recruitment drive is celebrated in the name of saving the country (exhibit: the Senate elections).

Controlled democracy is unstable and unsustainable. Either we will slide into another praetorian rule soon or the gamekeeper’s de-facto power to override the de-jure system in the name of national interest has to end.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

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