A movement for reform

Published on Jul 25, 2007 in the Dawn

WE have had popular movements in the past but was the latest one triggered by the .judicial crisis. any different? Let us explore this question. Three outstanding articles, by Anwar Syed and Kunwar Idris (July 8) and an earlier one by Masud Mufti have gone to the heart of the issues involved. I hope my contribution carries forward their profound analysis.

A complex of forces embracing a whole spectrum of political persuasions have often joined hands in the past to seek democratic rule in Pakistan, like this movement was trying to do, but these succeeded in achieving no more than a regime change. The system lived on.

The fact is that we have never had a truly democratic government. We have had either civilian or military governments or sometimes a hybrid of the two. The civilian governments were not all that democratic nor were the military regimes so undemocratic. And the hybrid ones were no better than half democracies.

It is pointless to debate whether the army or the politicians have been responsible for Pakistan.s stillborn democracy. The fact is that democracy would not have failed without their partnership. When Lincoln called democracy the government of the people, by the people and for the people, he basically meant a system of government that empowered the people. But unfortunately, .democracy. in Pakistan, whether of political lineage or genetically modified by the army, has only empowered the already empowered. And it has become a government of them, by them and for them.

Pakistani democracy has been a function of its regressive social order, obsolescent political structures and a skewed balance and distribution of power. Politics has been a three-way struggle for power. The three principal actors have been politicians in and politicians out of power and the army. The mullahs held the balance of power while bureaucracy served as an instrument of power.

Because of their facility for stirring agitation, the mullahs were used by the army to destabilise political governments. The latter themselves courted the mullahs to bolster their governance. Pakistani politics became a monopoly. The army, the politicians and the mullahs, aided by the bureaucracy and a pliant judiciary, only needed each other to come to power and did not have to court the public or fear its accountability. This naturally led to unresponsive and poor governance.

As each of the major players in this elitist politics, monopolised by dominant social groups, scrambled for power, the process of destabilisation of governments became unending. In this struggle, the institutions were progressively degraded. Each government undermined them and passed on to its successor an improved .tool box. to manipulate them. All this further damaged the quality of governance.

As the institutions crumbled and became adjuncts to centres of power, the rule of law and social stability were weakened and preyed on by the forces of extremism. The state lacked the political will, moral authority and effective instruments of law and order. The worst affected were the weak and vulnerable strata of society lacking both physical and economic security.

Over the years, this generated an enormous amount of frustration and anger in the country in every segment of society. The liberal intelligentsia protested in the name of freedom and progress, and the weak and vulnerable masses could do no more than despair and contemplate extreme and illusionary avenues to empowerment, swayed as they were by ideologues, demagogues and political opportunists. The national purpose yielded to illusions, emotions and passion for dangerous causes. And the nation paid a heavy price.

So it is not one stakeholder or institution that is responsible for all this. If the politicians really wanted the army to get off their backs the only way they could have done this was by out-performing them like in Turkey. This they never did. The two prime ministers . one in the 1970s, the other in the 1990s . who ostensibly tried to put the army in its place were in reality doing no such thing. By having generals of their own choice whom they thought were apolitical they were not aiming to sideline the army but to have it on their side. They acquiesced in the army.s role as long as it was on their behalf. But it did not work.

In the event, the politicians ended up with lame excuses that they could not perform because of the dominant role of the army; and the army relied on excessive savaging of the politicians and civilians to find a rationale for its appropriation of power. So they both needed each other as an alibi and a pretext. They were allies as well as rivals. This has been the paradox of Pakistan.s politics.

Seen from a historical perspective both the army and the feudal class have been united in the common pursuit of strengthening themselves and their institutional interests. Indeed, their identities fluctuate and often merge imperceptibly.

While the ruling elite only looked after itself, the country.s problems of governance and national cohesion continued to mount over the decades. The common man has remained deprived and disempowered despite the fact the country has registered great economic growth in recent years. But prosperity, even if it is real, does not help a country.s fundamental problems.

The challenges that Pakistan faces such as ethno-linguistic divisions, sectarian conflicts, competing visions of national identity, cultural wars, existential struggles between extremism and moderation, civil-military tensions and tussle between the centre and provinces, and above all, the stranglehold of feudalism and the civil-military bureaucracy are not susceptible to resolution by prosperity.

So what is the solution? Masud Mufti in his excellent article has proposed the formation of a new political party. I doubt if it will work. To succeed, such parties have to latch themselves to a system.

That is how Mr Bhutto.s PPP succeeded in coming to power. In fact, he hitched his wagon to three systems. He drove a feudal wagon wearing a Mao cap and picked up the mullah as a conductor on the way. PPP became Personality, Populism and Patronage, a roadmap that has been in use ever since except that populism has changed its idiom to a religious one with far more disastrous results.

What we need is a reform movement not a political party that should address the fundamental issues confronting Pakistan. What is required is a national re-awakening like the ones that brought about the Meiji Restoration in Japan and launched the Chinese reform movement around the beginning of the 20th century.

America had its own equivalent of sorts in the Progressive Movement. The issues and the context were different from ours but there was a common thread which may have some relevance for us. These were movements led by great patriots and men of learning who had higher purposes in mind and fought for great ideas. They were not politicians, at least not initially.

The reform movement should be apolitical. Yet it would need political action to have an impact. This could happen if the movement becomes a pressure group influential enough to leverage the politicians in power.

The current age of globalisation and information revolution makes it easy for its message to get across and mobilise the people. Fortunately, the media and civil society, that until the age of Internet, satellite TV, globalisation and mass politics, often flirted with the centres of power, are now recovering their autonomy, vibrancy and great potential to be agents of change. They can be aided by Pakistanis abroad, especially the web-connected young generation.

The movement should not fight just for democracy in abstract terms but for conditions that make democracy possible. The need is to reform the social structure and education, combat intolerance and extremism and find a new national purpose and concept of our place in the world . indeed a .new organising idea..

Only in this favourable environment can one lay the foundation of the democratic ideals of social justice, liberal constitutionalism, the empowerment of people, minorities and smaller provinces, and facilitate the emergence of a Pakistan at ease with its religion and at peace with itself, its neighbours and the outside world.

It is simplistic to think that with free, fair and inclusive elections, democracy will have arrived and will set Pakistan on the road to achieving all this. Electoral democracy does not achieve anything; it is governance that matters. If it rests on democratic ideals and institutions it can lead to a just and progressive society.

Given the gravity of the challenges that we face, the struggle is going to be collective, long and hard. It will need the cooperation and understanding of all stakeholders. Failure is not an option this time round, otherwise we will leave the field clear for the extremists who are already seducing the despairing population with dangerous and subversive recipes of change.

The primacy of civilian rule is a must. But what happens afterwards will determine the future of democracy and of Pakistan itself. Hopefully, the upcoming elections will open up the political process providing a favourable context for the reform movement to act as a pressure group. It has happened in history that the reform agenda in due course gets claimed by the ruling elite under pressure in the interest of its own political survival accelerating the process of change. I remain hopeful.

Pakistan is not a lost cause. Though it has suffered from poor leadership for much of its history, the nation seems to have a great resilience, a strong will to survive, and a faith-based sense of optimism and exceptionalism. Given the enormity of the self-inflicted damage to the country even survival has been a great achievement.