June 15, 2008

A rainbow in the sky

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 1:32 am
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JUNE 15, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008
Ghazi Salahuddin

My heart leapt up when I beheld that mammoth crowd gathered in front of the parliament in Islamabad through the night that led to Saturday morning. Well, I am tempted to paraphrase Wordsworth because the long march was verily a rainbow in the political sky of Pakistan. There has never been anything like it in terms of what it means and what it tells us about the potential for Pakistan’s redemption as a democracy.

As I write these words in the forenoon of Saturday, I feel overwhelmed by the hangover from a night of excitement and, in a sense, celebration. The involvement was building up throughout the day, an auspicious Friday the thirteenth, and it peaked in the small hours. Yes, there was this shade of concern when a group of aggressive political activists besieged the stage as Aitzaz Ahsan got up to speak just before five in the morning.

They were demanding a ‘dharna’ – a sit-in – until their main demand, the restoration of the judiciary, was accepted. They were also eager to jump across the barbed wire barrier to enter the ‘red zone’. In a sense, this line of attack had at times been suggested by the leaders of the lawyers’ movement themselves. But the situation as it had developed, with the massive attendance of ‘long marchers’, demanded a more prudent strategy and the leaders opted for wrapping up the protest to plan their next move after consultations.

Hence, the question is: what next? But this question can only be posed after the impact and meaning of the long march have been carefully analysed. A resounding message has been conveyed to the present rulers. The people have spoken. After the elections of February 18, the long march of this week has certified a mandate that some political elements are trying to camouflage through devious devices.

When I compare the long march to a rainbow, the idea is to underline the coming together of different and even divergent shades of political persuasion and public opinion to campaign for justice and morality. They do talk about rainbow coalitions in politics. But a very important characteristic of the long march is that it celebrates issue-based politics. We constantly complain that our politics revolves around personalities and issues are generally pushed into the background.

Ah, but where does the Pakistan People’s Party belong in this rainbow? We know that the PPP has traditionally been allied with such defiant demonstrations against the establishment. Indeed, the lawyers’ movement, since March 9, 2007, was visibly and enthusiastically supported by the PPP activists and leaders. Yet, after the formation of the coalition government, the present leadership of the party is seen to be drifting away from it hallowed traditions.

Unfortunately, the PPP’s hesitation in being an active participant in the protest can weaken the liberal voice in our politics. We should be mindful of how the Islamists and the rightist political parties are exploiting this cause that essentially upholds democratic and moral principles. Without any doubt, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League has taken great advantage of popular emotions and its stock is bound to rise at the cost, obviously, of the PPP.

It was interesting to see how the PPP leaders, the ones who belong to Asif Zardari’s ‘kitchen cabinet’, were responding to the remarkable spectacle of the long march in talk shows and interviews telecast by the news channels. You could feel their discomfiture as they insistently argued that their party was totally committed to the restoration of judiciary and was going about it in a constitutional manner. Some of them were deftly adjusting to the tempo of the long march as it rose by the hour.

By all means, the long march, as a political protest, was one of its kind. It was not an anti-government demonstration in the same way as the campaign was when President Musharraf was at the helm. There was this spectacle of a major coalition partner playing a leading role in a popular protest against governmental inaction and delay in the restoration of judiciary. Perhaps the PPP should at least be commended for facilitating the long march at the administrative level. But when you have people like Rehman Malik, Salman Taseer and Babar Awan to defend your case, the popular verdict is bound to be divided.

In its initial phase, the long march was not so impressive. The very idea of undertaking such an enterprise during scorching summer was problematical. Multan, virtually the launching pad of the march, did not present an encouraging show. But the push that was provided by the Nawaz League, beginning in Lahore, changed the entire perspective. Finally, the excitement surged on Friday as the procession reached Rawalpindi and Islamabad was witness to a political gathering that should become a legend in the capital’s brief history.

I am sure many of the supporters of the lawyers’ movement were surprised by the passion that was invested in the long march in its closing moments. Once again, Nawaz Sharif was able to enthrall a responsive crowd with his jibes aimed at Musharraf. He has definitely improved himself as a public speaker and can at times play with the audience. As for the rising tide of feelings against Musharraf, the long march has lifted it a few notches.

It was noted, particularly by Nawaz Sharif, that the finale of the long march was being staged at the same place where Musharraf had held his rent-a-crowd show of strength on May 12, 2007 – a day that will live in infamy in our political history. The difference in the two rallies is a manifestation of the change that has come about in the wake of the lawyers’ movement and the national elections held in February. The great tragedy of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27 has overshadowed all these developments.

Supporters of the PPP will forever grieve for that tragedy and keep on wondering how, with her political wisdom and courage, she would have responded to challenges that her party now confronts. Pakistan is certainly in a state of crisis at various different levels. Relations with the United States have entered a critical stage after that Mohmand air strike. Economic conditions have played havoc with the lives of ordinary citizens. Load-shedding is taking its toll.

Does this mean that the rulers must give priority to these matters rather than attend to the demands for an immediate restoration of judiciary? The long march has conveyed its message. And that message is that the issue of the judiciary is central to our concerns. For God’s sake, get this out of the way and then get on with the resolution of all other problems. Otherwise, there is little hope for the survival of the present arrangement.


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