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Between shame and shamelessness

We have tumbled into and been tossed from one species of government to another. We have suffered a ‘brutal’ dictatorship and savored an ‘enlightened’ one. Tired of a ‘sham’ democracy we tried the real thing and, somewhere along the way, anarchy too. We did this at great expense of blood and treasure but have yet to reach the stage when we can say, hand on heart, that democracy works best for us. We thought it did but then this government came along and its five years have put paid to any lingering notion that democracy can deliver.
That’s a pity because Pakistanis have a natural penchant for democracy. True, our politics are feudal and tribal in many respects but they are also very melodramatic, like Punjabi movies, and as compared to dictatorship, democracy provides more oxygen.
But an impoverished and uneducated electorate, supportive of archaic customs and superstitions and clinging to outdated values and rituals, cannot be expected to cut through impenetrable barriers of family, tribe ethnicity, and religion, and what is more, to resist threats , blandishments and bribes to elect honest, balanced and sensible leaders from the brigands that are mostly on offer as candidates.
Something else that has earned democracy a bad name is the deplorable political culture which is as much to blame for the four (and counting) military coups in Pakistan as the Bonapartes who profited from them. Admittedly, anywhere in the world an elected candidate must show some gratitude to his electors. He must do things in return for their votes. What successful candidate after all does not do a small favor or two for his constituents?
In Pakistan, however, the incumbent parliamentarian has to go further. He has to constantly maneuver between the two poles – shame and shamelessness. He not only has to recommend functional illiterates for highly skilled jobs but to write letters to all and sundry in defence of shady characters, tell a bank to loan money to a risky customer; find jobs as bank guards for ex-convicts; get a man out of jail by posting bail knowing all the while that the man is guilty and making preparations to flee momentarily.
After being immersed in this culture for five years the parliamentarian becomes inured to shame and without caring a hoot for the impression he is creating will vote for anything that will prove beneficial to him including legislation specifically crafted to stuff his pockets. Hence, the spectacle we witnessed on March 16, 2013, granting substantial increases in salaries, allowances and perks with, believe it or not, retrospective effect (from June 2011) to selected office-bearers of the ruling party in Sindh.
Had the many problems we confront today not been as acute and dire, we could afford the luxury of tolerating a whole slew of elected, albeit, dishonest parliamentarians for a few more years in the hope that voters would learn to be discriminating and elect sensible and honest souls to office. But that’s not the case. Indeed, if another lot with the same unique talent for feathering their own nests, and being clueless about governance, was to be elected, Armageddon would beckon.
Lest there be any doubt on that score, read any report by the UN, the World Bank, the ADB or the IMF on the current state of our economy, finances, social indices, level of corruption, etc, and see the disaster that lies in store if we carry on as we are. In a clutch of recent books on Pakistan’s future nearly all foreign authors warn of denouement with the more gloomy assessments going as far as to predict that’s now a certainty.
As I had said earlier, (The News, March 12) ‘The quandary we face in our political system is a bit like the issue of circular debt. Fools elect fools but mostly knaves who, in turn act foolishly and knavishly and then present themselves for re-election by the same fools they have duped. By continuing in this manner all we do is reinforce failure while expecting to succeed. We can’t afford that any longer because it would mean yet another five years going down the drain, and that arguably is all the time we have left’.
One can only speculate whether – if some sort of a neutral body had existed and could have stepped in to demand a review of government policy on, say, combating terror – the situation would have been as bad or not. I recall General Waheed Kakar informally playing such a role during the second Benazir government and carrying it off, much to the relief of those of us who, having tried to get BB to change her mind on a particular policy matter were happy he had succeeded where we had not. In fact, BB herself recognised the value of the advice he imparted which is the reason why she offered him an extension, although to her lasting regret he turned down the offer.
Let’s take an example where a similar forceful third party intervention today would have been all for the better.
While initially our policy of backing the Taliban and our jihadist allies to advance our (anti-Soviet, anti-India) goals worked, it stopped doing so after 9/11 when our support of the US turned them against us. And today the jihadi groups are our deadly foes. Unfortunately, some politicians foolishly remain hopeful that the earlier relationship can be restored and, impervious to danger, are bent on making compromises for votes with this bomb-happy fringe and their empathisers at home. Not wanting to interfere, the military is dithering at having a go at the extremists seemingly fearful of the politician’s reaction and worried by the political fallout.
This fear has not only suffused policy in dealing with extremists at home but also our Afghan policy. We are cosying up to Karzai, a known foe; ingratiating ourselves with the Afghan Taliban, an unreliable friend and trying vainly to patch up with the Tajiks which is no bad thing except that’s mission impossible.
Worse, the military and the civilians are not on the same page when it comes to dealing with mainland terrorism and also that emanating from the border regions. They continue to eye each other suspiciously. Hence, current military operations – because they are not followed up by any programme for resettlement, security or economic incentives for the population – are fanning fierce anti-Pakistan discontent.
Unless a joint civil-military strategy is worked out demonstrating we have no qualms about eliminating, with ruthless and indiscriminate intensity, all those who take up arms against the state, beginning immediately with the Punjabi Taliban, the enemy’s will and his plans will prosper. We have a civilian outreach to deal with the resulting dislocation such operations will entail.
To sum up, the choice today is not really between democracy and dictatorship but between democracy as it is worked today and a governance system that is effective. Suffice it to say, we are at a crossroads and time is a wasting asset.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: charles123it@hotmail.com

Zafar Hilaly, "Between shame and shamelessness," The News. 2013-03-19.