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Default The unmistakable mood - Roedad Khan

Monday, June 14, 2010

The unmistakable mood

Roedad Khan

If you want to know how a country can survive despite its leadership, despite its government, well, visit Pakistan. Democracy is a splendid conception but it has the disadvantage, on occasion, of placing in the lead men whose hands are dirty, who are mired in corruption, who will sap the strength of their country, not in years but over a period of months. The idea that you can just hold election, fair or unfair, while everything remains colonial, feudal and medieval, means you won’t get democracy but some perversion of it as we have today in this country.

Elections are necessary but not sufficient. Elections alone do not make a democracy. Creating a democracy requires a free and independent country, an inviolable constitution, a sustained commitment to develop all the necessary elements: a transparent executive accountable to parliament, a powerful and competent legislature answerable to the electorate, a strong, independent judiciary, and a free and independent media. To assume that vote alone will automatically bring about a democratic metamorphosis would be to condemn Pakistan to a repeat of the cycle seen so often in our history: a short-lived period of corrupt, civilian rule, a descent into chaos and then army intervention.

Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, was once asked by a young journalist what he feared most in politics. “Events, dear boy, events,” he responded. For Pakistan events are coming thick and fast: an ongoing, highly unpopular war against our own people in the tribal area, daily American drone attacks on our soil, killing innocent men, women and children, target killings in Karachi, massacre of Ahmedis in Lahore, total breakdown of law and order in the backdrop of spiralling inflation, driving thousands of angry protestors to take to the streets almost everyday. Their demand: nothing more than provision of basic necessities of life and the right to live. On top of all this, came a catastrophe of epic proportions in Hunza, caused by a landslide which has blocked the entire flow of the Hunza River, threatening everything in the valley all the way down to Tarbela.

Crisis is a crucible in which governments, residents, prime misters and other politicians are tested as nowhere else. The response one would expect from the head of state never happened. He seems too indifferent, too callous, too insensitive on the television screen. What is worse, he stayed away from the scene of this great human tragedy and did not bother to visit it even once. Hurricane Katrina defrocked a faith–based Bush. The Hunza crisis has similarly unmasked President Zardari.

What is it that people really expect from their president when a disaster strikes? The people expect the occupant of the presidency to keep hope alive, to assure them that they will survive; that they will get through it. He has to react promptly, direct recovery and mobilise resources. Above all, he must inspire confidence because everybody looks up to him in a national crisis. And so he has to be that larger-than-life figure. The change in intensity in the news media – cable channels are broadcasting round-the-clock pictures – has sharply increased the pressure on the president and his administration. In such a situation, people want and expect more of a personal connection. That did not happen.

People still remember how General Azam handled the flood crisis in East Pakistan. He struck a human chord and won over the hearts of the people. They loved Azam and still remember him with affection. In stark contrast, President Zardari looked so cold, so unconcerned, so indifferent, so distant, so wooden and so bureaucratic. Nothing about the president’s demeanour – which seemed casual to the point of carelessness – suggested that he understood the depth of the crisis.

And what of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani? The less said the better. He visited the affected area on May 21, 2010, five months after the massive landslide. After an aerial visit of the 19km long artificial lake, he told reporters that the disaster reminded him of the problems Pakistan had to face during partition when it had to face a sea of incoming refugees. With that Gilani turned his back on Hunza and never went there again. His visit drew sharp criticism from the affected people who dismissed it as a crude PR exercise. No wonder, in public perception, Gilani is speedily becoming a more or less honorary prime minister, living in a kind of twilight just outside the things that really matter.

Isn’t it a great tragedy that at a time when the nation is battling the forces of nature in Hunza, Pakistan’s democracy is in limbo, parliament is paralysed and the opposition languishes in torpid impotence. The constitution is a figment; all civil and political institutions, with the exception of superior judiciary, remain eviscerated. All power is still concentrated in the hands of President Zardari. He wields absolute power without responsibility and is accountable to none. Nothing moves without his approval.

At a time when the country is at war, Mr Zardari, the supreme commander, spends almost his entire existence in the confines of a bunker – his macabre domicile which he seldom leaves these days. Mortally afraid of his own people and the sword of the NRO judgment still hanging over his head, he is more concerned about protecting himself and his wealth rather than protecting the country or the people of Pakistan.

Today the political landscape of Pakistan is dotted with Potemkin villages. All the pillars of state, with the exception of the Supreme Court, are dysfunctional. Pakistan sits between hope and fear. Hope because “so long as there is a judiciary marked by rugged independence, the country and the citizen’s civil liberties are safe even in the absence of cast-iron guarantees in the constitution”. Fear that in spite of a strong and independent judiciary, the present corrupt order will perpetuate itself because both the president and parliament are in collusion and out of sync with the spirit of the times.

Pakistan is in deep, deep trouble and is going down the tube. The ‘wechselstimmung’ or the mood for change is unmistakable.

The writer is a former federal secretary.

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