Why So Impatient?

This nation suffered Field Marshal (self-appointed) Ayub Khan as its ruler for eleven years, and General Ziaul Haq for another eleven years, and Pervez Musharraf for eight and a half years. There was opposition to their rule at the popular level but it was to little avail when pitted against the army’s divisions. Power slipped away from Ayub and Musharraf when they could no longer count on the army’s unquestioning support.

Zia went because of other causes. But it is a strange characteristic of our chattering classes—whose supreme vocation in life, after the worship of Mammon, is the nurturing of conspiracy theories—that while they resign themselves all too readily to military rule, their impatience starts bursting at the seams as soon as there is a democratic government in place.

For the folly and ultimate futility of military rule their patience is unbounded. But surveying the imperfections and shortcomings of democracy — which are many — it is their anger which is limitless. Thus we see the strange spectacle of those who not only saw nothing wrong with Musharraf, but indeed served him loyally throughout his years in power, transformed suddenly into merciless critics of the present order.

This is no argument against criticism. If those who hold democracy’s cup in their hands play out their shenanigans, they must be taken to task. But we must remember at the same time that while the alternative in Britain to Gordon Brown is David Cameron, and the alternative in the US to the wild fantasies of neo-con Republicanism is someone like Barack Obama, what usually comes after the wholesale trashing of democracy in Pakistan is the march of the Triple One Brigade.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani are easy targets, not least because of their various shortcomings. It is perfectly legitimate to target them as both could do with extended lessons in vital aspects of adult education. But given our past and the ambitions of the Bonapartist class, we must beware of the distinction between those thrown up by democracy and democracy itself.

No calamity could be greater than George Bush. But America waited for an election to rubbish his legacy. Our chattering classes show not the same forbearance. And it’s not as if Zardari alone is the problem. If Nawaz Sharif had been in power I can bet anything the chattering classes would have ganged up against him.

I was just now reading the first column I wrote after Musharraf’s takeover and I have to say parts of it leave me ashamed. Basically the line I took was that the army’s hand had been forced. By the next column my sights had cleared and I was condemning the coup. But in the immediate aftermath of the coup I had, unforgivably, provided some justification for it. I, of course, recanted within a week but the love affair of the chattering classes as a whole with Musharraf lasted for a long time.

The brigade of the perennially disgruntled has a disarmingly simple agenda: to sup at the table of power, even if at the far end of the table. In that exalted, or relatively exalted, state their qualms are miraculously suppressed. But removed from that circle of hospitality it is touching, and not a little alarming, to see their hearts bleed for the nation and its problems. If in the 1990s it was a favourite refrain of the drawing room classes to condemn by turns Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, now the entire post-Feb 18 edifice is being undermined and called into question because Zardari happens to be president of the republic.

Zardari has his failings and who can deny them? Both he and Gillani are accidents of destiny, gifts from the heavens at their most sardonic. But they are also products of a democratic process and therefore to be tolerated until the next turn of the political wheel.

And while we may have much to lament as far as our present heroes on deck are concerned, we must learn from our past and apply some rein to our collective impatience, restraining some of the nihilism that we often demonstrate towards our institutions and democratic processes.

Nowadays, of course, we are witnessing something new, a variation on the theme of third-party intervention. It is not the army, which is being called upon to save the country. It is the judiciary, specifically the Supreme Court, which is being asked to come to the nation’s rescue, even if this amounts to crossing the limits set for it in the Constitution.

Those egging on the judiciary to overstep its limits are forgetting a few simple facts. Their lordships put under house arrest by Musharraf were freed not by any storming of the Bastille but by a few plain sentences uttered by Prime Minister Gilani even before his swearing in. In his maiden address to the National Assembly, he said the judges would be freed and, lo and behold, hardly were the words out of his mouth before the barriers guarding the judicial colony were swept away.

Is the irony lost on the self-appointed champions of the judiciary that while the lawyers’ movement had boycotted the February elections, it was the outcome of those elections, the emergence of a popular National Assembly, and not any long march, which led to this outcome?

Again the restoration of Justice Chaudhry and the other deposed judges came about because of a complex interplay of factors which were purely political in nature: Nawaz Sharif breaking out of his house arrest and leading the mass outpouring of feeling and marching feet that we saw in Lahore on March 15; and hectic behind-the-scenes activity on the part of Prime Minister Gilani and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

If no man is an island, no institution can be an island unto itself. An independent and powerful judiciary is a protector of parliament. At the same time, without democracy and the political process an independent judiciary is a meaningless concept. On Nov 3, 2007, when Musharraf imposed emergency, deposing Justice Chaudhry and replacing him with Justice Dogar, all it took to bring this about was a detachment of the Islamabad ISI.

It is the imperfect democracy emerging from the Feb 18, 2008, elections, which has nullified Musharraf’s actions. As we trash everything around us, let us not forget these facts.

The expected meeting between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif is a good omen for it shows that despite their sharp differences they realise that at this juncture when the army is fighting a war within the country’s borders, national unity rather than any fresh invitation to instability is of the highest importance.

Ayaz Amir is a distinguished Pakistani commentator and member of parliament

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