January 27, 2008

Lectures on democracy

Filed under: DOMESTIC — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:31 am
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JANUARY 27, 2008

By Irfan Husain

SOME people are suckers for punishment: as Musharraf flies around Europe, he is beginning to resemble a travelling punching bag that journalists punch as soon as it comes within range.

In a desperate attempt to hit back, Musharraf complained that western concern with democracy was ‘obsessive’. This in turn drew a stinging counterpunch from Condoleezza Rice: “Should one be obsessive about the right of people to live in freedom? Maybe so.”

On the subject of democracy in Pakistan, the American secretary of state went on to say: “No one has ever said that democracy is something that is born in a minute. It does take time, but you have to get started, and you have to start putting in place the institutions that will secure democratic values that will allow people to exercise their rights to freedom.”

For me, this little lecture on how to build democracy is a sad and painful reminder of where Pakistan stands among the comity of nations. For a country established as a democracy over 60 years ago by a committed parliamentarian to be lectured on the prerequisites of freedom is more than just insulting. It is uncomfortably close to the mark.

Over the years, army generals and their supporters have constantly repeated the mantra that Pakistan is not ready for democracy. Ayub Khan is on record as stating categorically that “parliamentary democracy does not suit the genius of our people”.

I can understand army officers taking this line to justify their incessant meddling in politics, and the rewards they have reaped. But for them to have such a large following among the educated elites is puzzling. Recently, a highly educated and intelligent Pakistani friend here in London shocked me when she said, in effect, that if the choice was between the PPP and PML-N, she would prefer Musharraf. Unfortunately, she is not alone among the well-to-do to make this assertion.The real problem with this argument is that it does not even begin to explain why, after decades of dictatorship, Pakistan is referred to in tones one uses while discussing the health of a patient on life support. If dictatorship is such a blessing, why is Pakistan faring so badly in most indicators of development and wellbeing?

Recently, a reader sent me an article (“Junta versus Janata” by Shekhar Gupta) that appeared in the Indian Express. The author makes the point that when Musharraf arrived in Agra to hold talks with the Indian prime minister, Indians were very impressed with his smartly tailored suits, his military swagger and his decisive approach. He is reported as complaining to his team of his impatience at Vajpayee’s cautious approach where everything had to be referred back to the defence committee of the cabinet.

Gupta quotes him as saying, in effect: “But you are the prime minister. Once you and I have decided something, why don’t we just sign?” Basically, Musharraf just did not grasp the concept of the prime minister being the first among equals in a cabinet.

Seven years later, Gupta asks where has the swagger gone? In the intervening period, Musharraf is a pariah with his country in turmoil. India, on the other hand, has continued its rapid progress.

Indeed, Gordon Brown’s visit to New Delhi, and Manmohan Singh’s trip to China have served to highlight the self-evident fact that India is now a world power by any definition of the term. Both Beijing and London are now talking about supporting India’s bid to join the Security Council. Pakistan, meanwhile, was suspended from the Commonwealth for Musharraf’s imposition of quasi-martial law on Nov 3.

For the ardent supporters of dictatorship, I would like to submit that Pakistan’s real problem has not been democracy, but its absence. The truth is that Condoleezza Rice is able to lecture us today on what democracy needs simply because it has never been allowed to put down roots in our infertile soil. Each time the system shows signs of maturing, it is uprooted by the army on grounds of corruption or misrule. Then the generals come along and indulge in the same misdeeds, albeit without much criticism from the media.

I am often accused of supporting politicians and the system they represent despite the fact that ‘they have looted the country’. Well, for one, compared to what the military officer class has gained, legally and illegally, the corruption of civilian politicians pales into insignificance. But even more importantly, if we are to talk of accountability, who is responsible for our disastrous Kashmir and Afghan policies but the army high command? Both continue to cost Pakistan untold billions and thousands of lives, and yet which general has even been asked for an explanation?

And if you still doubt the superiority of democracy over dictatorship, here is Gupta again, concluding his article “Junta versus Janata”: “The general draws his power by throttling the democratic system and its institutions, and you can see the result of that in Pakistan. So, in a democracy, howsoever powerful a Lalu or Megawati, they have to shut up and listen when the Supreme Court speaks. The Election Commission can publicly upbraid Sonia Gandhi and Narendra Modi. We, the media, can question and curse who we want. It happens because the political class has the biggest stake in the democratic process… In contrast, a military dictator owes his power to the absence of institutions, of checks and balances. That is exactly what Musharraf has done to his judiciary, the Election Commission and even the media…”

If we, as Pakistanis, resent these lectures on democracy from Washington and New Delhi, then it our own fault that we are getting them. In defence of their frequent interventions, generals often say the army is dragged into politics by politicians. But this begs the question of why they are willing to listen to out-of-work politicians in the first place. And more to the point, why they don’t return to the barracks as soon as possible.

But more than cynical politicians, it is the massed ranks of opportunists impatient for crumbs from the junta’s table who contribute to military rule. They and an irresponsible media have much to answer for.


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