The game of survival

September 20, 2015

Political legitimacy needed to address Karachi’s problems

The game of survival

A few days ago, Rangers in Karachi picked up the interrogated two young men allegedly involved in sexual harassment of a woman during Independence Day celebrations. Now sexual harassment is a serious problem that requires serious engagement and action by the state. But just let the other important part of the story sink in; Rangers investigating sexual harassment.

Oddly enough, this country’s premier newspapers did not treat it as a story. For them the story was sexual harassment, which of course it is, but the involvement of essentially a paramilitary force in an area of law expressly covered by civil and criminal legislation was overlooked.

As traders fall over each other thanking the Army Chief for everything from commodities’ prices to unexpectedly pleasant changes in the weather, the civilian government seems to be playing survival as the only game in town. Some might argue that this is clever at some level: Sindh was never run by the PML-N in the first place so it is just looking the other way as the military becomes the de facto government in the said province. If law and order improves the federal government can take part of the credit, even though its only contribution was that of being absent. Afghanistan and India are, as per one argument, areas of foreign policy that will always be hijacked in the name of national security -- and some hawkish behaviour makes the federal government look good here too -- so why not avoid a confrontation?

If the power crisis is addressed and Punjab continues to see increased commercial and industrial activity then the PML-N will have something to show for its time in power. If survival is the most important game in town to be played, then the PML-N is playing it just well enough to win it. There isn’t a high threshold -- that is perhaps in the short-run the best and, in the long-term, the worst thing about survival.

But this is an ill-advised course to follow. The ‘operation’ in Karachi, as it is called, is not just about weeding out criminal elements but about control of this country’s economic hub. It is about power and money. Ultimately, it is about controlling the pitch where various political actors are vying for power. The solution, if any, has to be political. Consequence based reasoning alone cannot control the debate here: we cannot celebrate use and abuse of power by the military only because an ‘x’ amount of good may come of it.

A line has to be drawn because you cannot take back power that you once allow another to usurp.

Granted that the PPP looking bad is good for the PML-N, the cost at which PML-N is achieving this might well turn out to be too high. The military is not bothered with political parties -- including genuine political aspirations and genuine grievances of parties such as the MQM -- therefore, it can ignore cries of protest. But the discourse of politics is what gives political parties, including PML-N, legitimacy. When the media and business community starts worshipping the chief of the army staff instead of looking towards an elected prime minster for direction, something is deeply awry.

Power ceded to other state actors, like most intoxicants, always comes with consequences -- building up over time. Once it vests in another you cannot wish away the after-effects. Civil-military imbalance was and remains Pakistan’s most serious problem and it is staggering how easily we seem to be accepting the increasing control of civilian affairs by the military.

An English language paper ran an editorial last week that criticised the PPP for warning of the dangers of military’s ascendancy. The criticism by the editorial was ostensibly based on the argument that PPP must set its own house in order first. Furthermore, representative democracy’s failure to build strong institutions was also criticised. Such an argument, while disturbing in its simplicity, is also naïve.

Of course the PPP and MQM must set their own houses in order. But how does that take away their right to feel aggrieved when the military decides to become judge, jury and executioner?

These parties have every right to raise an issue with the military’s practices in Karachi because the two parties are being targeted. But does that make their concern about erosion of any semblance of civilian authority less valid or critical? Of course not.

Having a personal motive for pushing a public agenda is never a disqualification in politics or business. Newspapers and political parties are clear examples of this. One does it for the money and the other for votes and power. Yes, there is ideology but all newspapers and politicians know that ideology and commitment to ideals is best pursued when you are secure and not worried about basic survival.

Representative democracy across the world has serious short-comings. As one observer recently noted, democracy is vastly accepted as the most desirable form of government by the people but its ability to respond to people’s needs is in constant need of improvement.

Indeed, this continuing evolution and ability to respond is what makes democracy so attractive.

But that is not the system’s only strength. What is at the root of it all is political legitimacy and accountability by the electorate. Media and businesses in Pakistan seem to be hailing an activist military for its ability to respond to crises facing this country -- but they, and this is quite dangerous, are not in the least concerned about legitimacy of military or accountability of the military.

The military, of course, loves the current bargain because it gets to hold everyone else accountable. No one would mind that job.

These things seem to be escaping the attention of the PML-N as well. It needs to remind itself, or be reminded, that Karachi is not just a law-and-order problem that can be solved by looking the other way as those not accountable usurp civilian authority. It is a city with a nuanced politics that requires using political legitimacy to address the city’s problems. If any force has to be used it must be ensured that there is accountability under a civilian set-up.

Right now Karachi is one big military court -- where we only see consequences and no due process.

There is no shortage of politicians in this country who will celebrate military’s control. But the PML-N needs to play a different game.

In recent years, on multiple occasions, it has exhibited a commendable commitment to sustainability of democracy. But the promise of effective democracy is rooted in the representatives of the people acting as per the wishes of the electorate -- not politicians playing by the rules set by generals.

Legitimacy, rather than meek survival, is what will make democracy stronger in this country.

The game of survival