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Islam and Politics ( 19 March 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Pakistan’s Latest Experiment with Democracy



By Nadeem F. Paracha

March 18, 2013

Backslaps are in order. Giving and receiving high-fives has taken on a whole new meaning in Pakistan.

Well, at least for the outgoing PPP-led coalition government and maybe even the parliamentarian opposition.

History has been made: For the first time ever a democratically elected parliament has completed its full five-year-term in Pakistan.

Congratulations are also in order for the coalition government for passing certain vital bills, resolutions and constitutional amendments of which much has been written and dissected, mostly positive.

Pakistanis like me, who have always maintained that uninterrupted democratic processes alone can halt the social, political and economic rot this unfortunate country has been experiencing for decades, should be pleased.

And we are. But I would be lying if I suggest that the last five years have been exactly what we thought they would be like when political parties, the media and the civil society gradually forced out the country’s last military dictator and put Pakistan back on the path to democracy.

Pakistan’s latest experiment with democracy has yielded a bitter-sweet fruit. Even though a popularly elected coalition government finally managed to stay afloat, and cleverly outmaneuvered the usual intrigues civilian regimes in this country have faced from the figurative establishment and its backdoor allies, it seems this was too exhaustive a task for the regime to do anything other than just survive.

If one looks at the government’s legislation and constitutional amendments that strengthened the status of the prime minister, the provinces, the judiciary and of women; and at the policies that turned political reconciliation with former political foes from being mere rhetoric to reality; and at the way ‘pro-poor’ schemes like the Benazir Income Support Program were unfolded – one should be impressed.

And one is. But, rather thus, it is highly disappointing to note that all this largely fails to gain the kind of appreciation it deserves if stood beside the outgoing regime’s performance on issues such as the economy, energy, corruption, terrorism, street crime, sectarianism, religious bigotry and extremism.

In another time and age when Pakistan was not so besieged by the kind of political, social and moral madness it has been a victim of ever since the 1980s, this government would have been perceived to have actually done a wonderful job.

But not in this day and age. Because passing important legislation that gives unprecedented powers to the provinces and the prime minister, and recognises the need to protect the economic, political and social role of women will continue hitting a brick wall if the same legislators refuse or hesitate to address constitutional issues that are, ironically a negation of the spirit of the above-mentioned legislation.

For example, exactly how much can be achieved from legislation that hails the rights of women, children and the minorities; or the rights of the provinces to determine and look after their own economic interests; or the right of every Pakistani to strive to better his or her own economic condition, without first reforming those articles and amendments in the constitution that were introduced by military dictators?

These are the amendments and articles that were enacted and bulldozed through henpecked puppet parliaments to safeguard the political interests of the dictators, and worse of all (in the case of late General Ziaul Haq), to constitutionally institutionalise religious bigotry and hypocrisy.

It has been repeated over and over again by politicians ever since the demise of Zia that the sectarian and ethnic violence and religious extremism that Pakistan has been quivering in, in the last many years is the logical eventuality of the dead dictator’s myopic and diabolic legislative havoc.

And yet, not a single leading and popular civilian  leader, from late Benazir Bhutto to Mian Nawaz Sharif, exhibited even a slight inclination to address the awkward issue –  and neither did the now historic coalition regime led by Zardari’s PPP.

Just like the post-Zia, PPP and PML-N regimes of the 1990s, the recently outgoing regime (including PML-N’s government in the Punjab), seemed to remain stuck in an outlook and narrative that is at best an excuse to excuse oneself from belling a bullying cat first let lose all over the constitution by the Zia dictatorship.

Indigenous and organic economic growth based on the genius of local traders, entrepreneurs, industrialists and ambitious white collar workers obviously requires a political and social environment that gives them enough opportunities to freely exchange ideas and capital among themselves, as well as work towards bagging benefits offered by non-Pakistanis who want to invest in the country.

Rapid urbanisation and the clear growth of the Pakistani middle-classes is all the more reason why governments should look to keep the country on a democratic path.

These elected parliaments will need to make sure the legislation that they undertake takes into consideration the fact that all the thorny amendments and articles of the constitution enacted to supposedly safeguard Pakistan’s ‘Islamic identity’, may as well be keeping the country from ever transforming itself into a robust democracy founded upon a strong economy and an enterprising middle-class.

After all, how can one do any business, or strive to better his lot, or express him or herself constructively and freely in the areas of economics, politics, the arts and even the sciences, while always being forced to look over their shoulders for a street thug, a target killer, a kidnapper or a religious bigot eyeing you for a possible case of perceived ‘blasphemy,’ or to be simply cut up in to pieces because he thinks you’re a heretic?

The PPP-led regime seemed completely devoid of comprehending such a scenario and thus, its inability, and at times, total state of paralysis in addressing the growing number of episodes involving religious and sectarian extremism, violence, and street crime in cities like Karachi, automatically led to the worsening of the economy.

The party is resigned to the fact that its vote bank in major urban centers has all but eroded, so why bother about issues it considers to be urban? Let’s just stick to politicking in the towns and villages, where the party still has a hefty number of voters, is the thinking.

Can it not be that maybe it is this kind of thinking that has gradually caused the erosion of the party’s urban vote bank? And anyway, even by managing to retain a healthy vote bank in small towns and villages, the party should be aware of the fact that this cannot last.

Take the case of the province where it still stands to win a majority. Sindh, outside of Karachi, is still very much a PPP bastion. But I have seen myself that areas, which even till the 1980s were small towns, have been rapidly growing into cities and that too with an ever-increasing population, with clearly middle-class economic and social ambitions.

The PPP requires an ideological reorientation if it wants to survive as a truly nationwide party in the coming decades.

Instead of being a hotchpotch of decadent feudal lords, amoral political opportunists and old-school socialists, it will have to become a dynamic left-liberal entity that can appeal to the peasants, the working-classes, as well as (if not now more so) to urban middle-class sensibilities.

For example, even till former Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer’s assassination at the hands of a religious nut who accused him of ‘blasphemy’, it won’t be an exaggeration to suggest that a majority of urban middle-class liberals identified with the PPP – that is, those who hadn’t yet moved to looking towards more ethnic-based secular parties such as the ANP, the MQM or one of the many Sindhi and Baloch nationalist groups.

This is a reality. Not only have the urban liberals been shifting their loyalties towards ethnic groups of their choice, ever since the 1990s, many former progressives and liberals in urban areas have also been moving towards centre-right parties such as the PML-N.

The complaint is obvious: PPP has not learned much from its founder Z A. Bhutto’s folly of conceding too much ground to the rightists and the feudal elite and completely missing out on interacting and taking into account the political and economic aspirations of the post-Bhutto urban middle-classes.

Not long from now, this is the class whose political ambitions and recent increase in economic power and social influence (especially through the private media outlets), is going to dictate and determine the fortunes of political parties more than ever.

Parties like the secular and Mohajir-centric MQM, the centre-right PML-N and even the quickly rising PTI have already realised this.

But whereas, the MQM and (albeit ironically) its ethnic opponent, the equally secular Pushtun nationalist party, the ANP, have a better chance than the current PPP in retaining their support amongst the urban liberals, secular nationalists, as well as the ‘religious moderates’. This appeal is more than likely to remain in their main areas of influence, namely Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh, as well as in Peshawar and certain towns of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

That’s why the changing scenario as pointed out above is promising to be more beneficial on a national scale for parties such as the PML-N and PTI.

PTI is still too new a phenomenon, even though it has managed to gather rapid support from the urban middle-classes due to its urbane posturing that mixes gung-ho political populism with a sophisticated appeal to soft conservatism found in this class, along with symbols and rhetoric that expresses this class’ frustration of not being able to couple its economic growth with its political ambitions.

PML-N is being seen as the party that will be able to pick up the most seats in the upcoming election.

But in spite of the fact that it has proven to have more vision and insight to understand the changing demographics of Pakistani politics and economics than the PPP, it is yet to convince itself that good economics in Pakistan is not merely the opposite of the bad economic management of the outgoing regime. Rather, bad economics is now directly linked to the consequences of the many awkward constitutional articles, amendments and policies enacted by the Zia dictatorship and then unconditionally carried over to the regimes that followed his demise.

If PML-N believes that it can achieve economic growth and social harmony by putting up well thought out economic policies alone, well it’s got another thing coming.

Economic policies, no matter how good, need a lot of room to breathe. And as PML-N or PTI, if any of the two manage to form the next government will realise, room to breathe is exactly what’s been shrinking in Pakistan.

The PPP-led regime never seemed all that interested in even comprehending lofty urban issues and thus, failed to address the economic and social fall-out the country’s economy, society and politics experienced due to all that is shrinking.

Nevertheless, the PML-N, by remaining vague on issues such as religious extremism and terrorism and on certain constitutional sections that actually encourage these, is missing out on the main reasons why Pakistan as a society and economy seems to have come to a grinding halt.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and