The Daily Times today reminds us of the importance of tone and civility in a mature democratic state. Democracy requires the people to be involved and quesitoning their government and leaders, regardless of political party or regionalism, but this quesitoning must be done through proper channels and always with the point being to strengthen the nation, not tear it apart
President Asif Ali Zardari’s hard-hitting speech on the second anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has provoked mixed reactions throughout the country. These reactions are along partisan lines, a reflection of the polarising impact of the speech. The president sounded aggressive and defiant (some have even dubbed it “an open declaration of war”) against his detractors and critics. The performance reminded of his earlier equally aggressive posture when he spoke via tele-link to the founding day rally of the PPP.
The president argued that some forces were out to subvert democracy, while non-state actors were trying to disintegrate the country. A concerted effort seemed afoot to pit institutions against each other, the result of which, the president said by way of analogy, was the fate of Iraq and Afghanistan. All this would be resisted at all cost, Mr Zardari asserted. He also pointed towards conspiracies against the provinces and the federation, and vowed his party would fight out these tendencies. He vented some spleen against those who were targeting him and warned them that the PPP’s tolerance and policy of reconciliation should not be mistaken for weakness.
Interestingly, while there was plenty of sub-text and reading between the lines of the president’s speech, he did not actually mention who the forces inimical to him, the PPP and the government led by it were. That left plenty of room for conjecture and speculation, in which the media and political commentators then had a field day. As to reactions from the political parties, three or four stand out. The PML-N dismissed the talk of conspiracy, arguing if there was any threat to the government, it was the PPP’s own doing. The PML-Q dubbed the speech one of a confused, frightened, angry person, hinting at paranoia, in which the author of the speech had tried to paint himself more as a victim than an accused. The MQM chief Altaf Hussain was surprisingly complimentary, calling the address one of great importance for the solidarity of the country. The Jamaat-i-Islami, true to form, tried to rubbish the speech by calling it an anti-army diatribe.
How should an objective observer view these developments? That the country’s political scenario is veering towards polarisation few can deny. The reasons too are well known. Since the February 2008 elections, the PPP government had tended to take a ‘soft’ line vis-à-vis its opponents and critics. This aroused some from within the party’s ranks to question this approach. Recently, voices have been heard expressing extreme Sindhi nationalist sentiments for which the party is not known and appear out of character. The policy of reconciliation advocated by Benazir Bhutto found expression in the toleration shown to unprecedentedly virulent attacks on the party, government and the person of the president. Perhaps the president’s recent two addresses signal a change of tune on the part of the party that has so far been on the receiving end. Not all the criticism of the party, government and the president may be misplaced, but it has been couched in such relatively violent language as to cause the hackles to rise. Differences in a democracy require airing, but within the ambit of parliamentary exchange. Personalised vitriol neither contributes to debate nor remains unanswered, except in the same vein. The polity as a whole is thereby the loser.
All stakeholders in the democratic order need to revisit their priorities and their terminology. The sharpest political differences can be expressed in civilised, acceptable language that helps further the understanding of the serious problems confronting the country, rather than deepen fissures to the point of a rupture. Our still nascent democracy has a long way to go. It needs nurturing. Violent language and unbridled attacks on one’s opponents may help snuff it out. That would compound the tragedy of Pakistan, in that it has yet to develop a system that is representative and responsive to the people’s needs, while retaining the mailed fist in the velvet glove against those who seek to impose antediluvian reaction on the largely moderate Muslims of the country. Restraint in politics is inherently difficult, but in our peculiar circumstances, critical. All should take heed.