What is the future after NRO?

There is a popular saying that hindsight is 20/20 vision. That is to say that when something has already passed, it is easy to know what will happen. Looking forward to the future, though, is often harder to gauge. Such is the case with NRO, according to Talat Masood, who encourages us to consider the NRO in the context of how is was arranged and what it was meant to do at the time it was considered. It’s also, though, important to remember that what we do today will have consequences that may not be as easy to predict as we might like to think.

When the NRO was originally introduced, it was reluctantly accepted as a necessary evil for transitioning the nation from military dictatorship to democracy – no easy feat. Some individuals are clearly trying to re-write the history books by suggesting that there was some conspiracy to erase the records of politicians and their friends. Obviously, this can be disproven by simply looking at who is on the list. Set Zardari aside for a moment and consider who is not on the list. Were these people ascetics during the 1980s and 1990s?

Let us also consider who it is that most loudly cries out about accountability today? Is it not these same individuals like Ahmed Quraishi and other right-wing personalities who were very much pro-dictator when all the alleged corruption was taking place? Yet of course there is no call for Ahmed Quraishi to be tried for corruption and supporting a military dictator. No, these same people try to re-write history and pretend that there has always been a democracy in Pakistan, despite their very acts to the contrary.

But enough history lessons for today. Let us consider the future, which is much harder to predict than the past.

Being a Lt. Gen (Retd), Talat Masood, is no babe in the woods. He has more experience dealing with military and governments than most of us ever will, so his advice should be given real weight. In his column today, he points out that this Pakistan is not some hundreds-year-old democracy with democratic institutions and processes solidly rooted in history. Rather, it is a fragile emerging democracy that must be nurtured and protected as it builds the strength to endure future crises:

The NRO was a product of political compromises. The Supreme Court judgment on it was, therefore, generally welcomed bringing the high and mighty in the orbit of justice and setting a precedent for accountability. There are no two opinions that accountability, if institutionalised and applied universally, would surely benefit and strengthen the country in the longer term. The problem however, is that these are not normal times and contemporary Pakistan is a fragile state with weak institutions. Besides, it is common knowledge that politicians alone are not responsible for bringing the country to this pass. The blame has to equally shared by all other major institutions: armed forces, judiciary, bureaucracy and media.

In these circumstances the post-NRO situation has to be managed with prudence and maturity so that it does not bring the whole system down with it. It would be foolish to postulate that the coalition government will survive without President Zardari, who clearly is the lynch pin of the PPP. Moreover, the country is already on a slippery slope and current in-fighting and mistrust between pillars of state could propel it in a downward spiral.

Some well-meaning individuals like to make the claim that the great democracies of the world would never be in a situation such as Pakistan finds itself today. I think this is, again, a re-write of the history books. The ‘great democracies of the world’ such as the USA, UK, France, Germany, Japan – all of these have corruption and political gamesmanship not only in their past history, but even today. The difference is that these countries see the democratic instutions – such as President, PM, and independent courts – as larger than the individuals who sit in those seats at any given time.

This is why Bill Clinton, when he was President of the USA, was investigated multiple times for corruption, but was never resigned. Now he is seen as one of the great American Presidents of modern times. It is also why the American elections of George Bush in 2000 were tried in the Supreme Court and caused great controversy. But the reaction of the American people was not to burn down the nation. Rather, it was to work through the democratic process to bring change. This is a slower process than a coup by any means, but having lived through some coups, I think we know which ends up better.

Lt. Gen (Retd) Masood is correct in his analysis of the proper solution to the current impasse. Namely, there must be some give-and-take by both the government and its opponents in order to protect the long-term health of our democracy.

On the question of democracy, President Zardari needs to do more both at the government and party level. Any further delay in the constitutional amendments, especially pertaining to repeal of the 17th Amendment, is no service to democracy. Moreover, it is time that the PPP is transformed from a party of patronage and parentage and started running on sound democratic lines. Instead, it should engage in serious competitive politics by setting higher standards of performance in legislation, governance and policy formulation. So far the results are disappointing. Being the single largest party it should undertake reforms within its ranks so that other parties too follow suit.

Of course, in defence of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani one can argue that when the fight is for survival than governance takes a back seat. It is, therefore, equally the responsibility of those forces opposing President Zardari that they remain within the bounds of the Constitution and let parliament decide his fate. I think the army also has to come clean about its role in national affairs. It should truly devote itself exclusively to professional responsibilities. The last six decades of experience clearly demonstrates that its traditional role of influencing political evolution or balancing and policy formulation has proved to be generally counter-productive. In any case, time has come when our armed forces should cross the mental threshold and stay away from any direct or indirect involvement in civilian affairs.

Pakistan is an emerging democracy that is facing the sort of trial that would test even the oldest and most firmly rooted of the world’s democracies. With daily attacks against our military and innocent civilians by militant jihadis, global economic recession, and the instability of our neighbor Afghanistan, Pakistan is already in a complicated and troubling position. Attacks on our democratic institutions from within are chipping away at the fragile democracy that we have begun to build after decades of dictatorship. We can emerge from this era stronger and better than ever before, but we must choose our path wisely and with an eye always to the future. If we choose, instead, to play games with the democracy for short-term political gain, we will end up undoing all the progress that we have made so far. And there will be no way to re-write that history book.

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