By Adil Najam
September 07, 2013
High politics in Pakistan has always been a dreadful game where exit from power has come about via only one of three very violent and terribly tragic routes: Death. Detention. Disgrace.
This characterisation has remained true for our entire history. Unless something appalling happens in the next 48 hours, the absoluteness of this assertion will very soon no longer be true.
By tomorrow, Asif Ali Zardari is expected to complete his five-year term as president of Pakistan and will move out of the Aiwan-e-Sadr. Not in a coffin wrapped in violence and gore. Not to captivity imposed by a usurper of power. Not in a forced exodus orchestrated by public outcry or establishment intervention. He will move out because in their own very messy way the people of Pakistan have spoken and have said that they would rather give someone else a chance at power. It matters not whether the electoral choice last time, this time, or the next time was a good one or not. It matters only that the citizen – and only the citizen – has the right to make that choice. That, more than all else, is the essence of democracy.
The graciousness demonstrated by both Asif Ali Zardari and Mohammad Nawaz Sharif in this transition has been heartening. Even if the camaraderie is not to last, let the lasting lesson of the pleasantries be that intensity of opposition need not come in the way of civility of interaction. That opponents need not be viewed as enemies. This, too, is central to the democratic ethos.
But the point of celebration is not that Zardari completed his term in office, nor that Nawaz Sharif has now assumed power. Neither of them is perfect; far from it. Certainly, both are to be congratulated for having played important roles in an unprecedented transition. Yes, both have been important instruments in a historic, although still infinitesimal, shift.
But the idea we need to cherish and celebrate is bigger than both. It is the idea that fledgling as it is, imperfect as it has been, and fragile as it will foreseeably remain, the democratic spirit has begun to take root. This idea is rooted not just in any particular party or leader but in the changing sensibility of the Pakistani citizen and Pakistani society. It is this changing sensibility that should the point of celebration.
Indeed, deep democracy will require much nourishment and nurture to flourish in the parched and scorched soils of our scarred polity. But like new parents we must also realise that the earliest and smallest baby steps are not only the most difficult but also the most important. For so many of us who have so long argued that democracy has to be sustained over multiple elections – even if it fumbles and stumbles as it finds its legs in a society that has not been kind to it – the sight of one elected government passing on the baton to the next is sweet vindication.
Some literalists might argue that the actual transition happened when a new parliament and prime minister were elected and Zardari’s exit is now only ceremonial. Let us, please, not gloss over the reality of our power structures as they are. In the previous government power was very much personified by Zardari (not in Yousaf Raza Gilani and certainly not Raja Pervaiz Ashraf) just as power in the current dispensation is personified in Nawaz Sharif in ways that it will not be in Mamnoon Hussain.
It matters, therefore, how Zardari exits from power much more than how Raja Pervaiz Ashraf did; just as it had mattered more how Gen Pervez Musharraf or Gen Ziaul Haq had exited from power mattered more than how Shaukat Aziz or Muhammad Khan Junejo had. Let all of this be a reminder that the national polity is shaped not only by how those who rule us assume power, but also how they exit from it. It is not only the tenacity of how they assert control but also the grace with which we leave it.
In that very spirit, and before we get too carried away in celebration, let us also acknowledge that notwithstanding all of the above, the legacy of the three dreaded Ds – death, detention and disgrace as instruments of transition – still looms large, not only in our past but maybe even in our future. Neither history nor the Pakistani courts have yet passed full judgement on Zardari’s predecessor, Gen Pervez Musharraf. He left high office in disgrace, is now technically in detention, and on charges that could even lead to death. In Zardari’s own case – this being Pakistan and this being Zardari – any one of the three dreaded Ds could very easily raise their heads in his future.
While an important break from the past has happened in the manner of Zardari’s exit from power, many more breaks from the past will need to happen before we can truly shake away the burdens that weigh us down. The demons of the three Ds have triggered far too many pathologies of violence and tragedy in the conduct of our politics. All too often, honourable exit has escaped those who have ruled us. Sometimes tragedy has been imposed; more often it has been the fruit of their own actions. What has been denied to the country and its citizens because of this mess is the continuity of a democratic process. That has been the greatest tragedy of all.
That is also why the small mercy of one elected government transitioning to another deserves introspection. Such transition is important because it raises the possibility of adding a fourth – and so much more pleasant – D to our erstwhile list of three: Democracy.
It is never wise to become too romantic about democracy. After all, democracy is nearly always messy, nearly never perfect, and unendingly argumentative. But as Winston Churchill famously remarked, it is better than all known alternatives. As if any more proof was needed, our own tortured history suggests that even as a means of exiting from power, democracy is so much more pleasant and graceful than other alternatives on offer.
Zardari knows that he has not been the most popular of presidents, indeed he is reviled by many. Yet, he is likely to leave the Aiwan-e-Sadr in a few hours with a bigger smile on his face than nearly anyone who has ever exited from such power in Pakistan. Part of it is his natural predisposition to smile. But an even larger part is the circumstance of his exit. Democracy, even after you lose, beats all the other exit routes that have been tried in Pakistan.
Let that be the one lesson that others who play with power and politics may learn: if the choice is between death, detention, disgrace and democracy, always choose democracy. Even if the choice is not as stark as that, always choose democracy.
Adil Najam has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.